World

MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 28 MARCH 2024

Hezbollah rocket strike intensifies battle with Israel; US scrambles to counter Houthis’ Red Sea attacks

Hezbollah rocket strike intensifies battle with Israel; US scrambles to counter Houthis’ Red Sea attacks
Israeli emergency responders inspect a building damaged by a rocket fired from Lebanon on 27 March 2024 in Kiryat Shmona, Israel. (Photo: Amir Levy / Getty Images)

Tension between Israel and Hezbollah heightened after the Iran-backed group fired rockets at a northern Israeli town, killing one person.

Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV said on Wednesday that the Iran-backed group launched “tens of missiles” at Kiryat Shmona and an army barracks after Israel bombed the southern Lebanese town of al-Habbariyeh.

The success of the Iran-backed Houthis in stymying the world’s most sophisticated militaries is the latest setback for Washington’s efforts to limit the spread of a regional conflict that began with the deadly Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October.

Hezbollah fires rocket barrage in escalating battle with Israel

Tension between Israel and Hezbollah heightened after the Lebanon-based group fired rockets at a northern Israeli town, killing one person.

The assault, a response to an Israeli airstrike on Lebanon that killed seven people, is likely to further fuel concerns that the near-daily border skirmishes could escalate into a full-blown war, opening a new front for Israel as it seeks to destroy Hamas in Gaza.

Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV said on Wednesday that the Iran-backed group launched “tens of missiles” at Kiryat Shmona and an army barracks after Israel bombed the southern Lebanese town of al-Habbariyeh.

Israel’s emergency service said a civilian was killed by the rocket barrage. Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported that seven people were killed by Israel’s strike on al-Habbariyeh and that it hit an emergency centre.

Israel Defense Forces said its fighter jets struck a military compound and a “significant terrorist operative” belonging to the al-Jamaa al-Islamiya group, which had launched attacks on Israel.

Read More: Fear of a Hezbollah raid creates ghost towns in Israel’s north

The tit-for-tat raids come as pressure mounts on Israel to agree to a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. The war was a response to Hamas’s surprise 7 October attacks in which 1,200 people were killed and 250 were taken hostage by the group.

More than 32,000 Gazans, mostly women and children, have been killed by Israel’s retaliatory offensive on the territory, according to health officials in the Hamas-run enclave.

In a recent poll conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute, 69% of those surveyed said they thought there was a very high or fairly high likelihood of an all-out war breaking out soon between Israel and Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, which is designated a terrorist group by the US, is the most powerful militia in the Middle East and is thought by Israeli intelligence to have more than 100,000 rockets and missiles.

‘No-fail’ mission to protect Red Sea isn’t working

The grey F/A-18 fighter jets hurtled one by one from the deck of the USS Dwight D Eisenhower into the heat of the Red Sea morning, scrambling to counter the latest attack drone launched by the Houthis. The $56-million aircraft were part of a coalition operation that nullified the attack, returning hours later as they have almost daily for the past several months.

Yet for all the costly hardware the US and its allies have thrown at the Islamist group from northwest Yemen, they haven’t been able to stop the attacks on civilian freighters and warships. As a result, the world’s biggest shipping companies are still largely avoiding a route that once carried 15% of global commerce.

The success of the Iran-backed rebel group in stymying the world’s most sophisticated militaries is the latest setback for Washington’s efforts to limit the spread of a regional conflict that began with Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel on 7 October.

The Houthi campaign, which claimed its first civilian ship sunk in early March and its first fatalities not long after, is also a growing threat to the global economy. The number of vessels sailing through the southern Red Sea is down about 70% compared with the start of December. Container shipping has dropped by about 90% and gas tankers have also all but ceased transit.

Sailing around southern Africa adds about two weeks to the voyage. As a result, the cost of sending a container from Shanghai to Rotterdam is about double the level of a year earlier, according to Drewry Shipping.

More than three months into a major naval policing operation, Admiral Marc Miguez, commander of the flotilla, concedes the US and its allies have more work to do.

“We know that we have reduced some of their capability,” he said, standing on the navigation bridge of the Eisenhower. But with the Houthis’ backers in Iran still sending money, weapons and intelligence — including from a spy ship sailing hundreds of kilometres from the Eisenhower just outside the Red Sea — he would not forecast when the job might be done.

The Houthis, meanwhile, have told China and Russia their ships can sail through the Red Sea without fear of attack. Still, the Houthis hit a Chinese oil tanker with a missile on Saturday, an attack that could have been a case of mistaken identity and reflecting that no ships are safe.

One Western official said the Houthis are likely to have the ability to keep launching strikes on other ships at something close to the current pace for months.

A top Iranian commander, Abdul Reza Shahlai, directed the first Houthi attacks from inside Yemen in October, according to several people with direct intelligence from the ground. The US is offering $15-million for information about Shahlai, who is accused of masterminding deadly attacks on Americans in the region. He’s also the de facto commander of the Houthis’ drone and missile forces, with a direct line to the group’s leader, according to people familiar with the group.

“As far as Iran is concerned, he has done an amazing job, he’s built the Houthis into this monster,” according to Joel Rayburn, a former US military officer and diplomat who’s worked on countering Iran.  

Despite the nearly daily strikes on their bases in Yemen, the Houthis have basked in the global attention that’s catapulted them to the front ranks of the Arab resistance to Israel’s war in Gaza and shown their value to their patrons in Tehran.

For the moment, the costly game of cat and mouse continues. On the Eisenhower, officials said the Houthis stopped using their drones for high-level reconnaissance once the allies began to target them. Instead, they fired them low across the water to avoid detection and attack allied ships directly.

In response, the allies have taken to using fighters like the F/A-18s to take out the drones with air-to-air missiles, keeping them further from the ships and conserving the expensive weapons they had used to defend themselves.

“Our goal is no loss of life. No loss of equipment,” said Captain Colin Price, the ship’s executive officer. “It’s a no-fail mission.” DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Elections24 Newsletter Banner

On May 29 2024, South Africans will make their mark in another way.

Get your exclusive, in-depth Election 2024 newsletter curated by Ferial Haffajee delivered straight to your inbox.