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Bab El Mandeb Blockade Aimed at Stifling Israel

November 7, 1973
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

When the Yom Kippur War broke out Oct. 6, world attention was focussed on the two battlefronts–the Sinai and the Golan Heights–where the crucial battles of tanks and aircraft were being fought. All of Israel’s resources were concentrated on repulsing the enemy and seizing the initiative. All but forgotten here was Egypt’s blockade of the straits of Bab el Mandeb, in effect a third front aimed at stifling Israel’s vital trade lifelines to Africa, the Persian Gulf and the Far East.

Although a cease-fire prevails for the present on the Golan and along the Suez Canal, the blockade continues, adding yet another severe burden to Israel’s precariously strained economy. The narrow straits, by definition international waters, connect the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The blockade prevents ships from leaving or entering Israel’s port of Eilat, nearly 1000 miles to the north. Longshoremen working cargoes at Eilat noticed that something was wrong early in the war. Vessels that had completed loading remained in port with cargoes consigned to African and Asian countries. It was not until Israel’s UN Ambassador Yosef Tekoah made his statement to the Security Council discussing the cease-fire that most Israelis learned of the new front.

The strategic importance of the southern entrance to the Red Sea has been apparent for generations. The British, the first to recognize the importance of the straits, established strongholds as to safeguard their shipping routes to India. The best way to control the straits was to hold the island of Perim situated between the shores of the Arabian peninsula and Djibouti, East Africa. The island lies three kilometers from the Arabian coast and 24 kilometers from the African coast. The British took over this volcanic rocky island, five kilometers long and less than two kilometers wide, in 1857. They wanted to assure the waterways from the Suez Canal which was then under construction.

Generations later, after England lost its empire, the importance of Aden declined and it became a burden on the British treasury. This, coupled with the resurgence of Arab nationalism brought about the abandonment by England of all her territories and holdings to the South Arabian republics including the South Yemen republic which took over Perim and thereby the control of the straits. The first sign of danger to Israeli shipping in the Red Sea came shortly after the Six-Day War when the Tiran straits, at the junction of the Gulf of Akaba and the Gulf of Suez were opened to Israeli shipping with the capture of Sharm el-Sheikh. On Nov. 15, 1967, Abd El Fatah Ismayil, of the National Liberation Front in Aden, declared that the “Front” would bar Israeli shipping from the Red Sea after the British left Aden. Other reports said that units of the “Front” took control at Perim.

The threat was a real one. But when the Arab republics came into being Israeli shipping through the Red Sea was unmolested. Eilat grew into a major port and became what it was meant to be–the southern gate of Israel. Imports and exports to Africa and the Far East came and went through this port, including oil from various sources and from there – by the pipeline to the Mediterranean. Then the Russians took an interest in that waterway. They have been authorized by South Arabia to construct a base on Sokotra. With significant influence in Egypt, in Yemen and in other African countries, Russia was soon able to control the Red Sea and its approaches from the Indian Ocean. It was a threat not only to Israel but to the Western world. The first shots were fired in the middle of June 1971. An Israel-bound tanker, the Coral Sea, was attacked while steaming through the Straits of Bab el Mandeb on her way to Eilat.

Bab el Mandeb poses an important problem if Israel is to continue her trade with East Africa and the Far East and receive oil through the Red Sea. International law could not be invoked. When the Yom Kippur War broke out the Egyptians, who initiated the war, prepared a blockade of the Bab el Mandeb straits. The South Arabians have no real fleet. An Egyptian flotilla of two submarines and two destroyers took positions at the southern outlet of the Red Sea. It was closed to Israeli inbound and outbound shipping. About a dozen ships were in Eilat at the outbreak of hostilities. They are still there except for a Japanese freighter that sailed from Eilat and passed through the blockade unharmed. This is explainable by the Japanese, attitude toward the Arabs (her economy is dependent on Arab oil) both in political statements and in providing medical help to Arabs. Israel has conditioned the reopening of the straits with the cease-fire agreement. Cease-fire has been arranged. The straits are still closed. If the blockade continues there is no telling what the outcome might be.

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