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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 23 FEBRUARY 2024

Heat on UK Commons Speaker after Gaza vote chaos; Houthis prepare for long Red Sea battle

Heat on UK Commons Speaker after Gaza vote chaos; Houthis prepare for long Red Sea battle
Speaker of the UK House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle. (Photo: Max Mumby / Indigo / Getty Images)

UK House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle faced growing calls from Conservative and Scottish National Party politicians to resign over chaotic scenes in Parliament late on Wednesday, triggered by accusations he had intervened to help the Labour Party avoid a rebellion over a vote on Gaza.

Houthi militants and their Iranian backers are preparing for a lengthy confrontation with the US and allies around the Red Sea regardless of how the Israel-Hamas war plays out.

Israel is determined to push ahead to move a million or more civilians from Rafah before an attack on the Hamas-held city in Gaza, even though officials acknowledge in private they have no precise strategy for how to do it, how long it will take or where the people will go.

Pressure builds on UK Commons Speaker after Gaza vote chaos

House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle faced growing calls from Conservative and Scottish National Party politicians to resign over chaotic scenes in Parliament late on Wednesday, triggered by accusations he had intervened to help the Labour Party avoid a rebellion over a vote on Gaza.

More than 65 Members of Parliament had signed a motion declaring no confidence in the Speaker as of Thursday evening — one in 10 of all MPs — all SNP and Tory except for a former Conservative sitting as an independent. Though non-binding, the number will alarm Hoyle, whose position depends on broad support.

Read more: House of Commons sinks into chaos over Israel-Hamas war vote

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told broadcasters that the Speaker’s handling of the Gaza debate was “very concerning” and warned that Parliament should never be intimidated by “extremists” after the Speaker said he allowed Labour a vote based on concerns over MPs’ safety. Still, he acknowledged that Hoyle had apologised and was “reflecting on what happened”.

The chaos was triggered during a debate on the Israel-Hamas war when Hoyle allowed both Keir Starmer’s Labour and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Tories to propose changes to the SNP’s call for a ceasefire in Gaza, despite Wednesday being allotted to the Scottish party as an “opposition day”. The drama drew comparisons with the heated wrangling in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote.

Though the argument was fought over typically arcane Westminster procedure — the vote was non-binding and would have no impact on British foreign policy — much of the SNP and Conservative anger stemmed from political interests heightened by the buildup to a UK general election expected this year. Hoyle’s move effectively handed Starmer a chance to defuse Labour tensions over his stance on Gaza, robbing the SNP and Tories of an opening to capitalise.  

As in other countries, Hamas’s attack on Israel in October triggered community tensions in the UK, where pro-Palestinian protests as well as counter-rallies have been held regularly in cities across the country. It’s an issue that affects all political parties but is especially sensitive for the Labour Party, which has traditionally had strong support from British Muslims. 

Iran-backed Houthis prepare for long Red Sea battle with US

Houthi militants and their Iranian backers are preparing for a lengthy confrontation with the US and allies around the Red Sea regardless of how the Israel-Hamas war plays out.

The Yemen-based group is shoring up military and defence capabilities to continue attacking ships around the vital waterway, according to several people with knowledge of the situation, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters. Steps include fortifying mountain hideouts for more secure and effective missile launches and testing unmanned vessels above and below water, they said.

Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen and has fought the Houthis for most of the past decade, is specifically concerned the group may attempt to sabotage major internet cables running along the seabed, according to an adviser to the Saudi leadership, who didn’t want to be named. There are no suggestions yet of a plan of that nature or that the Houthis have the means to carry one out.

The Houthis started attacking Red Sea shipping in November, ostensibly as a means of pressuring Israel to end its war in Gaza against Hamas, which is also backed by Iran. At first, they said only vessels with ties to Israel would be targeted, though it wasn’t long before ships with only tenuous connections to the Jewish state were also hit. 

The assaults have helped push oil prices up by more than 8% this year, with Brent nearing $85 a barrel, and upended trade through the southern Red Sea. The waterway normally handles about 30% of global container traffic and sees more than $1-trillion worth of goods pass through each year. 

The US and UK have responded since mid-January with airstrikes against the Houthis’ military assets — including missile launchers, air-defence systems and radars. The Pentagon says the group’s capabilities have weakened as a result. A US-led maritime operation to patrol and secure the Red Sea started in December and was bolstered this week by a Greek-led European Union mission. 

Yet a foiled attempt to attack a US warship in the Red Sea on Saturday was followed by a strike on a UK-owned cargo vessel the next day, causing damage and forcing the crew to be taken ashore. It was the first such evacuation since the Houthis started their attacks. A cargo ship then caught fire after being attacked by two missiles in the Gulf of Aden, the UK Navy said on Thursday. 

While Israel is stoking fears in the international community over plans to attack the Palestinian refugee haven of Rafah, the Houthis and Iran are seeking to extract Western concessions that have nothing to do with the Israeli-Hamas conflict, said Rashad Al-Alimi, who heads Yemen’s internationally recognised government opposed by the Houthis. Sanctions relief for Iran and political recognition for the militant group may be among these demands, he suggested.

“This is a strategic dream for Iran,” Alimi said during a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference last weekend. 

The Houthis had over the past few weeks buttressed their positions in three mountainous areas, said sources, who shared this information with Bloomberg based on intelligence gathered mainly from individuals on the ground.

They had dug more trenches and tunnels in the mountains of the Hajjah governorate northwest of Sanaa, located at the Saudi border and overlooking the Red Sea, as well as around peaks inland, they said.

These remote and rugged locations are being used to hide stockpiles of missiles, while mountainous heights of over 2,000m allow for the targeting of ships further out to sea — including in the Gulf of Aden and even the Arabian Sea, according to four people informed about the Houthis’ latest moves. 

Israeli officials push ahead with Rafah plan without precise strategy

Israel is determined to move a million or more civilians from Rafah before an attack on the Hamas-held city in Gaza, even though officials acknowledge in private they have no precise strategy for how to do it, how long it will take or where the people will go.

“I ordered a plan, they’re preparing it and are going to present it in the near future,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a brief phone interview with Bloomberg on Wednesday, referring to the Israeli military.

Desperate Gazans have sought refuge in Rafah, and many are now living in tents and on the streets, facing hunger and illness. Forcing them to return to devastated areas is expected to add to a death toll that has already exceeded 29,000 in Gaza since the war erupted, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. 

Israeli leaders see this as an inflection point, however. They believe they are getting close to dismantling the military structure of Hamas, considered a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union, and finding around 100 remaining hostages. Meeting these goals can only be accomplished in Rafah, they say, where officials think between 5,000 and 8,000 fighters and Hamas leaders are hiding, mostly in tunnels, along with the hostages.  

In addition to the threat to civilians, a Rafah attack could provoke violence from Palestinians in the West Bank and Iran-backed militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria, and create even greater geopolitical tumult. Israel’s full-scale response to Hamas’ 7 October attack, which killed more than 1,200 people and saw the group take 240 hostages, has become a source of consternation to many governments, particularly in the Global South.

South Africa has accused Israel of genocide before the International Court of Justice, and leaders of the G20 summit in Brazil are considering limiting the scope of that forum because participants are so split over the war in Gaza.

Allies worry that the longer the war continues, the likelier it is that Israel will lose whatever support it once had among Arab states. Israel has said it will launch a ground offensive in Rafah unless the hostages are released by Ramadan — the Muslim holy month expected to begin on 10 March.

Western officials are increasingly alarmed at the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and the US and its allies have been pressing Israel for details on how it plans to move the civilian population north of Rafah, which sits near the Egyptian border in the south of the Palestinian territory. While officials believe that Israel will conduct its military operation in Rafah no matter what, according to people familiar with the matter, there is concern about the Ramadan deadline and the broader humanitarian situation.

Of Hamas’ five fighting brigades, two based in and around Gaza City in the north and a third near the southern city of Khan Younis have essentially been broken, the military says. The fourth and fifth remaining forces have largely consolidated in Rafah. 

“We are coming to the end of the beginning,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser. “Completing Khan Younis will take another week. In March, we will move our forces into Rafah where the fighting will take till the end of April. We can then move to a configuration of smaller forces like we have in the north.”

He predicted that low-level fighting would go on for the rest of the year. 

Israel says that of the 40,000 armed fighters in Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad, it has killed 10,500 in the war. That’s in addition to the roughly 1,300 that died during the Hamas attack on 7 October. Some 2,000 have been captured and an estimated 10,000 wounded. That leaves about 15,000 combatants. 

When Israel does end its war, it will then have to deal with the contentious question of what happens next. The US, European allies and the Arab world all want Israel to commit to the creation of a Palestinian state to run Gaza. But Netanyahu has rejected this, saying such a move would be tantamount to rewarding Hamas for the 7 October attacks. 

On Wednesday, the Israeli parliament easily passed a resolution rejecting an imposition of a Palestinian state on Israel, again suggesting that Netanyahu has plenty of support for his stance. In his call with Bloomberg, he called it a “historic day” because of the overwhelming vote, which got through the Knesset 99-9. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War
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