Armed by Iran, Yemen's Houthi rebels now threaten one of world's busiest shipping routes, a top Israeli naval official said.
“The entrenchment of Iran in Yemen and the transfer of advance weaponry to the Houthi forces in the region constitutes a threat to merchant ships making their way to the Mediterranean Sea" via the Bab al-Mandab crossing, a senior Israel Navy official said Monday, as he described the threats to the State of Israel’s economic waters.
"We are dealing today with the most advanced systems being transferred to Houthis [in Yemen] and Hezbollah [in Lebanon], and this definitely constitutes a threat to Israel’s merchant ships and gas rigs."
This same officer claims that as of today, Hezbollah has weapons that threaten the entire area of Israel’s economic waters and could cause damage to each of the fields that supply gas to Israel. “At a time of war we have to be able to order the closure of the [gas] rigs such that if a rig takes a hit it can be repaired. A rig that has gas in it – a hot rig – will disintegrate [if hit] and will not return to service.”
The navy hasn’t been asked to express an opinion about the purchase of German submarines by the Egyptian army but although the navy doesn’t see Egypt as a serious threat, certainly not in the short term, the senior officer said, “I would prefer if those submarines wouldn’t make it here.”
Nevertheless, senior Israel Defense Forces officer told Haaretz, "our intelligence assessment is that even if Hezbollah currently has this capability, we don't see it taking such an extreme step just to create a provocation. The other side also understands that hitting the gas platforms is the declaration of a third Lebanon war."
In July 2011, in a speech marking the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israels offshore gas platforms. The organization, which doesnt recognize Israels existence, claims the platforms lie in Lebanon's exclusive economic zone rather than Israel's.
"Lebanon is capable of defending its gas and oil resources, and anyone who lays a hand on its assets, we'll know how to treat him," Nasrallah said. If Lebanon is wise enough to act maturely and responsibly regarding the gas and oil fields, we'll have an opportunity to pay our debts and improve the country's economic situation.
His deputy, Naim Qassem, has made similar remarks. "It is Lebanon's right to exercise its sovereignty and control over natural resources and gas fields discovered in Lebanon's waters, and therefore, the resistance is responsible for using all means to assist this," Qassem said, using Hezbollah's nickname for itself.
Army sources say the threats that Hezbollah started making in 2010 include Hezbollah's abilities to attack Israel's gas platforms. "It's not just declarations but rather capabilities, mainly missiles, aimed at attacking the platforms," one defense official said.
The government has tasked the IDF with defending the gas platforms. To do so, the navy is preparing to accept the Sa’ar 6 boats that will be used to defend the rigs. The ships will be equipped with anti-missile systems and other capabilities to deal with potential threats. During routine times, these vessels will be used for ongoing operations but in an emergency every rig will be guarded by a vessel carrying an anti-missile system.
The Israel Defense Forces is also awaiting the arrival of new submarines during the coming years. The army made it clear to government officials that the minimum the navy needs is five submarines, while the optimal number is six. After the construction of the three new submarines under order from the German shipyard, the IDF will have six submarines at its disposal.
The submarine issue has lately been under the cloud of the investigation known as the Case 3000 that deals with allegations of bribery in a billion-dollar submarine deal between Israel and Germany. Some of the key suspects in the affair are very close associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The navy feels the presence of the investigation, it can’t be ignored,” the senior officer said. “But we aren’t dealing with everything surrounding it. All that interests us are the needs of the navy, if we need the tools or not. The influence on the navy is just the fact that the case is in the air.”
To date, no serving naval officer has been questioned in the Case 3000 investigation.
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