Israel’s Eilat Port has seen an 85% drop in activity since Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen stepped up attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, the port’s chief executive said on Thursday. The Houthis are playing an escalating role in the conflict in the Middle East, also firing drones and missiles at Israel in a campaign they say aims to support Palestinians in the Gaza war, where Hamas is also backed by Iran. Eilat, which primarily handles car imports and potash exports coming from the Dead Sea, pales in size compared to Israel’s Mediterranean ports in Haifa and Ashdod. But Eilat offers Israel a gateway to the East without the need to navigate the Suez Canal. It was one of the first ports to be affected as shipping firms rerouted vessels to avoid the Red Sea after the Houthis disrupted a key trade route through the Bab al-Mandab Strait. Without Bab al-Mandab “you close the main shipping artery to Eilat Port. And therefore we lost 85% of total activity,” CEO Gideon Golber told Reuters.
The United States has since announced a multi-national security initiative to protect the crucial shipping lane. “We still have a small number of ships for exporting potash, but I believe that with a destination in the Far East they will no longer travel in that direction. So that will also go down,” Golber said. “Unfortunately, if it continues we will reach a situation of zero ships in Eilat Port.”
The alternative route takes shipping around the southern tip of Africa, extending voyages to the Mediterranean by two to three weeks which will add extra costs down the line, Israeli officials say. Golber said the port would discuss with all relevant parties how to maintain operational continuity at Eilat, although it would require income. Still, he was confident they would find a way to do so. “If God forbid, the coalition countries and Israel lag in finding a solution for the Houthis, unfortunately we will likely have to furlough workers,” he said, adding that a small number would be required to service any ships that do arrive.