Eilat Reels as Iran-Backed Houthis Put a Dent in Israeli Port Activity

Washington turns a blind eye as Houthi strikes reach — for the first time — land near the port city of Eilat.

Prince Roy via Wikimedia Commons CC2.0
The Southern Israeli port city of Eilat. Prince Roy via Wikimedia Commons CC2.0

While Biden officials and a few British focused on the Gaza Strip, Iran-backed Houthis firing missiles are — for the first time — striking in or near Israel’s southern port city of Eilat.

The IDF has confirmed that a Houthi cruise missile fired from the direction of the Red Sea struck land near Eilat on Monday. That hasn’t happened before. Up until this week, the Houthi projectiles launched from Yemen that haven’t struck ships were either intercepted or fell on neighboring countries. 

Also on Monday, the Houthis targeted a Marshall-Islands flagged fuel tanker headed for Saudi Arabia, in keeping with a stream of attacks on ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea that started in  November. Not only have such attacks become a headache for everyone, with the possible exception of the Houthis themselves, but they are causing economic damage that is spinning out of control.

For the world, it means higher costs caused by the diversion of a big chunk of commercial shipping in the Red Sea to longer routes around the southern tip of Africa. As African ports are overwhelmed, the Port of Eilat — Israel’s third-largest port after those at Haifa and Ashdod, respectively — is buckling. On Wednesday, news agencies reported that the port management announced it intends to terminate half of the 120 Eilat Port employees. 

News of the imminent layoffs seemingly came out the blue, but it’s all about the Red Sea. In December, the head of the Eilat Port company, Gideon Colber, told Reuters that there had been an 85 percent drop in port commercial activity since the Houthis started attacking Red Sea shipping.

“All the cargo that comes to Eilat through the Bab el Mandeb [Strait] from the Far East, it means [cargo from] China, Japan, South Korea, India is not coming because the ships are afraid to go through the Bab el Mandeb. So we don’t have any ships anymore from December 1,” Mr. Colber stated. 

He warned then that without some kind of solution to the crisis, job cuts would be likely. The Port of Eilat was privatized in 2013 and purchased by the Nakash brothers. Their father, Joseph Nakash, is the man who made Jordache designer jeans a household name in America in the early 1980s.

Today the port is mainly used for vehicle imports from the Far East and for the export of materials such as potassium fertilizer to the Asia-Pacific. According to the website Marine Insight, in a typical year the port would handle more than two million tons of dry cargo. 

This year has been anything but typical. Calcalist reported that last year 149,000 vehicles entered Eilat from points  east, whereas since the beginning of 2024, that number is zero. If cargo dries up, jobs cannot be far behind. They are drying up faster than anybody might have thought before the Hamas attack on October 7 and the Houthi strikes in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea that followed mere weeks afterward. 

Despite American and British-led efforts to counteract the Houthi threat, the Iran-backed terrorists are largely undeterred. Yemen itself has been engulfed in civil war since 2014, when the Houthis captured the capital, Sanaa, and forced the internationally recognized government to flee. 

Following the announcement, Israel’s powerful national trade union, the Histadrut, has come out swinging at management. According to the Times of Israel, the union’s maritime division manager, Nir Eisenberg, said “the port management is trying to take advantage of the war situation and harm the livelihood of dedicated workers in the southern periphery.”

The bigger picture, though, is that, through its Houthi proxy, Tehran is starting to take a bite out of Israel’s economy, which after five months of war is already reeling in other ways. 

One of those is tourism. While many airlines had suspended flights to Israel following the onset of war in the aftermath of the Hamas rampage in southern Israel last October, they are gradually restoring service. Earlier this month, for example, United resumed service to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport  from Newark Liberty International Airport. 

Eilat, aside from its commercial significance in the region, is also heavily dependent on tourism. If the Houthi cruise missile that landed near the city this week was the harbinger of more to come, then fewer people are likely to choose hotels in Eilat for their holidays. Then, as during the covid pandemic years,  job losses could start to ripple across the travel sector, too. 

All of this as thousands of Israelis remain displaced from their homes near the volatile northern border with Lebanon — another difficult fact of war that still seems oddly beyond the grasp of many supposedly moral and educated political leaders right now.

The New York Sun

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