Israel, Piracy and the Red Sea

By Galal Nassar – Cairo

Piracy has topped the news recently from the Middle East, in spite of major developments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Every day, it seems, brings a new scene straight out of Hollywood: another maritime hijacking, intense negotiations to free a detained oil tanker and its crew, and police hunts for suspected hijackers. We have even had gun battles on the high seas, as occurred recently when an Indian naval force vessel overpowered and sunk a pirate ship. Warships from around the world have converged around the Horn of Africa and are stationed and on the ready from the Indian Ocean to the Gulf of Aden. One is reminded of a film about extraterrestrial invaders, in which the most powerful weapons on earth have been assembled but are powerless to fend off the alien peril, and hence only some brave and ingenious hero (an American most likely) will save the world from immanent destruction.

Odd, isn’t it, that not a minuscule fraction of all this media attention was drawn to the area when boats of Somali refugees were sinking in the same bodies of water? That, apparently, was just a routine game of Russian roulette played by people who were obviously not newsworthy and did not merit international humanitarian concern. In fact, more often than not, passing ships did not even pause, as is required by international law, to save the lives of those whose rusted boats were stranded in the middle of the sea and who had no hope of reaching shore alive. Nor were the countries of the world stirred into action by Yemen’s appeal for relief for thousands of refugees who had managed to make it to its shores alive. Sanaa was left to deal with those gaunt and wasted survivors on its own.

Even worse, the tragic events that have been unfolding on land in Somalia for several years and that have reaped an even more disastrous human roll have received just as little attention. And what is particularly amazing is that the man who caused all that destruction on land and the rise of piracy on the seas, by overthrowing the government that had managed to restore peace and security to the country was the first to dispatch warships to the Indian Ocean.

Somalia is in the grips of utter chaos and the Somali people face countless threats to their lives and wellbeing. The players in that morass are plenty. Ethiopian occupation forces have begun to "officially" withdraw from the areas where the supporters of the Djibouti agreement are active. Their leaders now have a free hand to sew further dissension, which is to say to translate that divisive agreement into practice on the ground. Meanwhile, resistance groups have rushed to seize control of other areas that the occupation forces and the government it supports have been unable to secure. Moreover, that government, which Ethiopia regards as legitimate and claims appealed for its intervention, has totally collapsed as a consequence of an open rupture between the interim president and his prime minister. Nonetheless, world attention has remained riveted on pirates in the sea while war and destruction rage on land.

Only recently have we seen attempts to link the two. Unfortunately, that adds new dimensions to the negative way in which the plight of the Somali people is being handled. Western forces, which had urged and supported Ethiopia’s intervention against the Islamic Courts Movement (ICM), which had almost succeeded in uniting Somalia and putting an end to piracy, are now suggesting that the ICM is benefiting from — if not actively sponsoring — the acts of piracy. It is an approach virtually guaranteed to create new problems on land, as opposed to resolving the situation on land as a key to remedying the problem at sea. One can almost envision an international force invading Somalia, once again repeating an odious scenario designed to prevent that country from completing the transformation into a proper state following the departure of Ethiopian forces, plunging it deeper into civil strife.

Seas of Strategic Importance

Somalia perches on the most important maritime channels in the world. Through this passageway passes Arab oil on its way to European and American markets. It is also a relatively inexpensive route for the shipment of Western industrial products to Asia and Africa. Approximately 10 per cent of the world’s maritime cargo passes through these waters, according to recent statistics. The maritime channel has special strategic significance for Washington and Israel. For the former, it serves as the vital link between the US’s Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and its Fifth Fleet stationed off the coast of Bahrain and its Seventh Fleet in the Indian Ocean. Tel Aviv, meanwhile, has not forgotten that Egypt together with Yemen closed the Bab Al-Mandeb upon the outbreak of the 1973 October War, which came as an additional blow to Israeli and international shipping with the closure of the Suez Canal following the Israeli occupation of Sinai in 1967. Israel has been pressing for the internationalisation of the Red Sea. With its ships no longer confined to a narrow lane as they pass to and from the port of Eilat, it would have much greater manoeuvrability in those waters as well as the opportunity to secure supply lines for its naval units. There is no overstating what a military advantage this would bring to the Hebrew state and what a threat this would pose to Arab national security.

The piracy off the coast of Somalia is certain to be seized upon as legal and moral grounds for the internationalisation of those waterways. Undoubtedly, too, these designs have gained a part of their impetus from the current state of Arab weakness and the inability of the Arabs to resolve the Somali problem, which is the source of the dramatic rise in piracy. According to a report issued by Chatham House, some 60 ships have been the victim of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean since the beginning of this year alone. On 2 October, The Guardian reported that during this period Somali pirates have obtained between $18-30 million in ransom payments. The newspaper cautioned that the dramatic increase in acts of piracy in that area may cause maritime traffic to divert away from the Suez Canal to the Cape of Good Hope.

Red Sea Change Immanent

It is important to bear in mind that, with the rise of piracy in the region, the West has trained its focus more intensely on security of the seas while leaving the domestic crisis in Somalia to play itself out. Because the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden are integrally connected with the Bab Al-Mandeb, the Red Sea and, some would add, the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aqaba, those powers are keen to see immediate results in these vitally strategic waters.

Conspiracy theorists would further suggest that the acts of piracy in the area are masterminded in the West, and in Washington in particular. They point, for example, to the hijacking of a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 state-of-the-art Russian tanks and argue that there must, at the very least, be some collusion at work in order to draw world attention to the risks involved for ordinary transport ships, with the purpose of rallying support behind the idea of forming an international naval force to keep those waters safe. Indeed, the Western drive to form an international naval force in the Red Sea is, perhaps, the most salient proof that the internationalisation of the Red Sea is coming and only waiting for the Western powers and Israel to reach an accommodation over their shares of the pie. During the coming months those powers will engage in intensive and, most likely, secretive talks and machinations with the purpose of assigning roles and dividing stakes. Naturally, Israeli aims will be given high priority.

The process is already in progress. In late November, Paris submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council calling for the creation of an international naval force to protect shipping off the Somali coast. The draft also proposed that this force mount a military campaign in December. In approving the resolution this week, the Security Council effectively mandates that the Red Sea will come under an international mandate (meaning under the control of the US and the Zionist entity), essentially seizing those waters from Arab sovereignty on the grounds that the Arabs have been unable to keep them secure (and, indeed, Yemen does not even have a coastguard to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden).

In this context we should recall that in June, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1816, which had been jointly sponsored by France and the US and which had authorised countries cooperating with the interim Somali government to enter Somali regional waters for the purpose of combating hijacking and piracy. Implementation of the resolution proved not as effective as hoped, in large part due to the vastness of the area that needed to be covered. The Somali coast is 3,700 kilometres long. If the purpose of that resolution was to give Somali President Abdallah Youssef the opportunity to prove his ability to combat piracy, it failed in this objective as well. Embarrassingly so: acts of piracy actually increased along the coast off Puntland, the president’s native region over which he had served as president before becoming the president of Somalia.

Western schemes to internationalise the Red Sea will strike a debilitating blow to Arab security, which is already weak and crumbling since the occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Arab territory and holy sites in Palestine at the expense of and to the ongoing detriment of Palestinian national and human rights. What should the Arabs do to forestall these plans? Perhaps the most important actions they should take are the following: first, work together under the umbrella of the Arab League and in cooperation with African countries to resolve the Somali crisis and bring peace to that war-torn country; second, revive an idea that had gained some support in the 1980s until it was shelved as the result of US pressure. This was to create an Arab Red Sea Organisation establishing a security system for the Red Sea basin.

Israeli Ambitions

David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, was the first to voice the Zionist entity’s ambition to gain control over the Red Sea. In 1949 he said, "We are surrounded on land… The sea is our only route of contact with the rest of the world. Developing Eilat will be a major goal towards which we will direct our steps." Countries overlooking the Red Sea sensed the danger. In 1950 Saudi Arabia and Egypt struck an agreement granting the latter military access to several strategically placed islands in the Gulf of Aqaba, the two most important of which are Tiran and Sanafir. The purpose was to restrict Israeli maritime activities. The action became one of the motives behind the tripartite aggression of 1956. Later, in 1967, Egypt’s closure of the Gulf of Aqaba became the direct cause of the Six Day War in which Israel occupied extensive tracts of Arab land.

In the face of this development, the Arab nations, especially the frontline states with Israel and those bordering the Mediterranean, became more acutely aware of the threat of Israeli expansionism and the strategic importance of the Red Sea and the Bab Al-Mandeb in particular. These were the vital maritime links between the Israeli port of Eilat and Africa and Southeast Asia. Israeli naval displays in the Red Sea between 1970 and 1973 drove home the point to such an extent that Yemen declared itself an immediate party to the Arab-Israeli conflict. During this period Yemen alerted the Arab League to Zionist activities on the Eritrean coast near Bab Al-Mandeb. The League followed through on this alert and discovered that, indeed, Israel in cooperation with the US had rented several islands from Ethiopia. It further discovered an espionage network based on Barim Island in the centre of the straits whose task was to gather intelligence on the area straddling the southern entrance to the Red Sea and to safeguard the passage of Israeli ships. On 6 October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a simultaneous attack on Israel and, for the first time, the Arabs coordinated in asserting the right of sovereignty over their territorial waters by closing the Bab Al-Mandeb to Israeli ships. On 14 October of that year, Yemen deployed forces on several islands in the Red Sea in order to prevent Israel from occupying them.

From 1973 to 1979, the Arabs convened several conferences for the purpose of protecting Red Sea security from Zionist infiltration into the area. Among the most important resolutions to come out of these conferences was one declaring the Red Sea an Arab sea that would remain independent from international conflicts, and another calling for cooperation among Red Sea basin countries in the exploitation of its wealth for the benefit of the people of the region and against the policies of the Zionist entity. In all these conferences, Yemen played a crucial role in formulating a unified Arab vision on the prevention of Zionist infiltration. By virtue of its strategic location, Yemen was perhaps foremost among the Arab countries to appreciate the dangers of Israeli ambitions in the region and to observe the Israeli drive to establish closer relations with African nations near the southern entrance to the Red Sea. Thus, in October 1977, Sanaa sent a secret memorandum to the Arab League warning of the growth of an Israeli and Ethiopian military presence on the Eritrean coast and near Bab Al-Mandeb. It also reported that Ethiopia had sold a strip of the Eritrean coastline to Zionist intelligence agents, placing Israel in a position to directly threaten Yemeni islands and the southern portion of the strait.

The continued lack of a clear and cohesive collective Arab security policy for the Red Sea zone, the hostile relations between some Arab and African states and, more importantly, inter-Arab tensions in that area in particular, all worked in favour of Israeli designs. Tel Aviv scored a significant victory in this regard. It is embodied in the Camp David Accords of 16 March 1979 in the form of the recognition of Israel’s right to freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba, the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal. The distortion in regional balances that this caused was instrumental in perpetuating political and economic instability, all the more so in view of the general climate that enabled Israel to establish an even greater presence and more powerful influence in the Red Sea area and to deploy these in ways inimical to Arab interests.

Controlling East Africa

The commander of the Israeli navy said, "Control over the Suez Canal only gives Egypt one key to the Red Sea. The second and more important key from the strategic point of view is the Bab Al-Mandeb. This could fall into Israeli hands if it could develop its naval force in the Red Sea zone." Elyahu Salbetter writes that Israeli defence strategists and planners are fully aware of the Arab threat to Israel in the Red Sea, which underscores the need for Israel to establish closer relations with non-Arab countries in east Africa. Certainly, since 1990 the political climate has been even more conducive to Israel’s ends. With the aid of its strategic alliance with the US and its overall military superiority, Israel has succeeded in strengthening its political, economic and military ties with Red Sea nations.

Several Arab studies have concluded that Eritrea’s occupation of the Hanish Islands in December 1995 was supported and engineered by Israel with the aim of gaining a stronger foothold in the southern Red Sea. Apparently that move had been a relatively long time in the planning. As early as 1990 an Israeli delegation visited Asmara to gather intelligence on the situation in Eritrea and the southern Red Sea area. Israeli strategists then drew up an urgent plan for a more vigorous foreign policy towards east Africa. Discussed in a five-hour secret Knesset session on 16 March 1992, the most important points in the plan were: To normalise relations with such African countries as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zambia, Togo, Mozambique and Kenya, and to counter Arab influence in Africa; to strengthen Israeli military presence in the Red Sea and in Eritrea and Ethiopia; and to strengthen economic ties between Eritrea and Israel.

In addition to sending 1,700 military experts to help train the Eritrean army, Israel created a network of political and cultural loyalties by building large palaces, offering 60 grants for Eritrean students to study in Israel, and sponsoring various cultural exchanges. On 13 February 1993, an Israeli delegation of security and economic officials paid a secret five-day visit to Eritrea. The agreement in principle that resulted from that visit was officially signed in Tel Aviv, in March that year, between Yitzhak Rabin and Asyas Afourki. It provided that Israel would supply Asmara with military and agricultural experts and build national infrastructure in exchange for permission to maintain a permanent and full Israeli presence in Eritrea and for freedom of movement for Mossad agents in the country. The agreement further obliged Asmara to refrain from engaging in any cooperative activities with Arab countries and to postpone the idea of joining the Arab League indefinitely.

Following this agreement, Israel augmented its forces in Eritrea to 3,000 troops who took up station in military bases in areas near Sudan and Yemen. Of particular importance are the bases on Sorkin Mountain, overlooking Miyun Island near Bab Al-Mandeb. On this island, located at the entrance to the Red Sea, Israel installed radars that monitor the more than 17,000 ships that pass through the straits, and through which also passes 30 per cent of the world’s oil production. In mid November 1995, Eritrean forces (without Israeli assistance) undertook a failed bid to occupy the Hanish Islands. The balances of power at the time were such as to enable Yemen to regain control over the strategic islands. Today, pirates have become part of the strategic equations and one can not help but to suspect that Israel is behind this threat to one of the most important maritime routes in the world.

An Israeli Hand?

According to the International Maritime Bureau, there have been 61 assaults recorded by Somali pirates since the beginning of this year. The pirates now hold more than 50 ships, among which one is carrying 33 tanks. A naval organisation based in Kenya has estimated the number of pirates along the Somali coast at around 1,100, operating in four large bands. Consisting mostly of former coast guard employees, they use high-speed boats that take off from a mother ship and possess a variety of weapons ranging from machine guns and hand grenades to portable missile launchers and GPS tracking devices. The ransoms demanded have ranged from several hundred thousand dollars to millions, depending on the type of ship they hijack and the profile of the hostages. According to the most recent estimates, Somali pirates have raked in between $25-30 million so far.

Piracy of this magnitude make it clear that the pirates are no longer a haphazard collection of opportunists or individuals with no other sources of income to turn to in their war-torn country. There must be a prime mover seeking to further its own agenda through operations that have grown increasingly sophisticated. Indeed, we are witnessing a virtual repeat of the Afghanistan scenario. There, the Taliban succeeded in putting an end to the drug trade, to which have testified all international parties. Following the invasion and occupation of the country by the US-led coalition and then NATO forces, on the pretext of fighting terrorism, the puppet government that was installed by the occupying powers allowed that trade to flourish once again. To drugs we can add the killings, terrorism and population displacements that have torn apart Afghan society.

In Somalia, the Islamic Courts Movement almost succeeded in putting an end to the reign of terror and violence of rival militias after it had brought most of the country under control and isolated the remnants of a weak and decaying government. Then Ethiopia intervened, on the grounds of having been invited in by that government, which it claimed to be legitimate, in order to drive out the ICM. The result was to open the way to the return of piracy and commerce in death and destruction. Today, as the Somali resistance is gaining more and more ground, "piracy" has become the catchword for the next round in the game of international intervention, this time to be played out — in the beginning — at sea. In short, international powers are in the process of turning piracy at sea into the avenue for preventing the ICM’s rise to power on land and the reconstruction of the Somali state. It is the "war against terror" all over again, with a twist.

Logical Observations

In this tale of piracy there are certain threads that lead to logical deductions. For example, it is hard to imagine that the US air force, which can sniff out hideouts and target alleged Al-Qaeda suspects in residential neighbourhoods and craggy mountains, does not have the means to monitor what is taking place along Somalia’s maritime borders. In addition to the communications and military technology, it has forces on the ground in a permanent base in Djibouti not far from a French military base. It is difficult to believe that those forces with their advanced weaponry and trained in the arts of rapid intervention can not take on a few hundred poorly equipped and trained pirate militias. Surely even some commando operations targeting the hijacked ships would do the trick?

One can not help but to ask, as well, how it could happen that a couple of hundred pirates could operate only a stone’s throw away from the place where the warship USS Cole was bombed? Remember, this is an area where US forces are at the ready, in which regional and international navies have command posts, and in which there have been dozens of intensive joint naval manoeuvres. Which brings us to the question, if the US military that is by some accounts prepared to make war on Iran cannot handle pirates then could squads of Iranian boatmen detain US freighters or oil tankers with impunity? Numerous senior military officials in the West have spoken about the training and tactical expertise these pirates possess. Is the purpose to caution ships away from the area? Or is it to excuse the inability of Western forces to deal with the threat? Or is it to rally support for another international interventionist drive?

Are we not reminded of the scenarios that accompanied the build-up preceding every bombardment and invasion of countries in the Middle East? In particular, should we not be alerted by experience with the game that preceded the invasion of Iraq, especially all the media play that was given to weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi military preparedness?

There is also something difficult to believe in the train of events. Suddenly, gangs of pirates have evolved into a standing army with tactics, strategies and plans of offence. From isolated reports of the capture of some small ships of varying ownership, we suddenly have the hijacking of a Ukrainian vessel bearing heavy arms and, more recently, the hijacking of a gargantuan oil tanker! What is happening? Are we to believe that those pirates have suddenly developed all that organisation and combat skill? Is it not more rational, in light of previous experience, to believe that certain powers have plans to establish control over the area and that magnifying the "piracy peril" is one of the means towards this end? Does it not also make sense that this falls in line with a tangential plan to end opposition to the presence of foreign military forces in the Gulf of Aden by twisting the economic screws? Is this not a likely interpretation of the sounding of the alarm that "piracy" will force commercial naval traffic to make the detour around the tip of Africa?

Which is more dangerous, pirates or the Islamic Courts Movement? A very similar question was raised with regard to Afghanistan: Which is more dangerous, the Taliban or drug trafficking? The Taliban was overthrown and drug trafficking thrived again. In Somalia, the ICM was ousted and piracy thrived again. If the world wants to end the trade of drugs as well as the death and destruction in Afghanistan it should force the withdrawal of international forces. The same applies to Somalia. If the world wants to end the piracy phenomenon and the threat to major maritime routes, it should lift its protective shield from the collapsed government in Somalia, pressure Ethiopia to leave, and allow the ICM back into power. There is no need for more occupation armies. The key to ending the real dangers and to halting death and destruction is to stop foreign intervention in the domestic affairs of nations and to let the people of nations enjoy the freedom of choosing their preferred form of rule.

(Originally published in Al Ahram Weekly – – 18-24 December 2008, Issue No. 926)

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