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Escalating Red Sea tensions and citizen boycotts trap US in Catch-22

James M. Dorsey



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Increasingly, the United States is caught in a Catch-22 with tension mounting in the Red Sea, Israel maintaining unabated its assault on the Gaza Strip, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) possibly ruling that Israel may be committing genocide.


A court ruling against Israel would bolster Yemen’s Houthi rebels who assert that attacks on Israel-related shipping are justified under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention obligates signatories to pursue the enforcement of the genocide prohibition.

A Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea in this photo released Monday. Photo: Houthi Military Media via Reuters

 

The obligation constituted the basis for South Africa’s case against Israel before the ICJ.


The Houthis, who control much of Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa, base their justification on Yemen being a party to the convention, even if their government has not been internationally recognised.


Britain challenged the Houthis’ legal reasoning in a policy paper, insisting that the decision to strike the Houthis, together with the United States, was “lawfully taken.”


The paper argued that Britain was “permitted under international law to use force in such circumstances where acting in self-defence is the only feasible means to deal with an actual or imminent armed attack and where the force used is necessary and proportionate.”


The United States and Britain twice this week hit Houthi military targets in retaliation for Houthi attacks on Gulf shipping and US and UK naval vessels in Gulf waters.


An RAF Typhoon aircraft takes off to join the US-led coalition from RAF Akrotiri to conduct air strikes against military targets in Yemen, aimed at the Iran-backed Houthi militia that has been targeting international shipping in the Red Sea, in Cyprus, in this handout picture released on January 12, 2024. Photo:  UK MOD  via  REUTERS

 

Nevertheless, the United States’ dilemma is that it is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.


The US cannot afford to fail to ensure safe and secure shipping passage in crucial Gulf waters.


Yet, with public opinion, regionally and internationally, critical of US support for Israel, this week’s US and British strikes against the Houthis are widely perceived as serving Israel’s interests and threatening to turn the Gaza war into a regional conflagration.


A court ruling against Israel would reinforce that perception.


Public perceptions and the threat of a regional conflagration persuaded Middle Eastern states, with the exception of Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet, to distance themselves from the US efforts to deter the Houthis.


Middle Eastern states doubt the US and UK strikes will deter the Houthis. Instead,  

Without exception, Middle Eastern states believe that only an end to hostilities in Gaza can prevent the war from escalating regionally.


They are concerned that deterring the Houthis would involve a full-fledged attack that could lead to another forever war and draw Iran into the conflagration militarily.


In addition, some countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates fear that they could be targeted if they join the US.


In addition, Saudi Arabia is concerned that an escalation of tensions in the Red Sea could jeopardise efforts to conclude an agreement with the Houthis that would extricate the kingdom from its nine-year military intervention in Yemen.


The Houthis’ attacks on shipping resonate with protesters against the Gaza war across the globe and supporters of the Boycott, Diversification and Sanctions (BDS) movement that targets Israel. Thousands of BDS supporters took to the streets in Malaysia and Indonesia this weekend.


Protesters shout slogans outside the US embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Dita Alangkara/Reuters


Unlike Indonesia, Malaysia is one of the few countries that allows Hamas to operate and raise funds in the country. It is also the only country, alongside the Houthis, to target Israel-related shipping.


Last month, Malaysia banned all Israeli-flagged cargo ships and vessels scheduled to sail to Israel from docking at its ports in a response to the war in Gaza.


Even so, in October, authorities suspended a non-governmental group that funneled donations to Hamas and froze $15 million in assets on suspicion of misuse of funds and money laundering.


Malaysians, like others in several countries, have boycott Western fast-food brands in protest against the Gaza war.


In response, Saudi-owned Gerbang Alaf Restaurants Sdn Bhd (GAR), which operates the McDonald’s franchise in Malaysia has sued BDS for US$1.31 million dollars in damages, asserting that the movement had made "false and defamatory statements" that link the brand to Israel's "genocidal war against Palestinians in Gaza." BDS has denied the assertion.


GAR asserted that the boycott had led to profit loss and job cuts due to closures and shortened operating hours of its outlets.


McDonald's global CEO Chris Kempczinski conceded last week that the Gaza war was having a "meaningful business impact" on the company.

 

McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski at McDonald's headquarters on Wednesday, May 5, 2021 in the West Loop of Chicago. Photo: Jean Marc-Giboux

 

Mr. Kempczinski did not quantify the impact, but McDonald's is expected to report earnings later this month.


McDonald's was targeted after its Israeli affiliate said in October that it had given thousands of free meals to Israel Defense Forces personnel and was donating meals "to all those who are involved in the defence of the state, hospitals, and surrounding areas."


Some McDonald’s franchises in Indonesia and Pakistan said they had made donations to aid organizations in Gaza.


“McDonald’s and Starbucks outside the major cities are empty. You have people not wanting to buy Nestlé products. BDS people here say that it’s all frictional employment. It’s not.

People are going to be out of jobs for a long time,” said a Malaysian analyst.


He added that “local brands are not going to be able to offer the same terms of employment. Nor would they be able to expand quickly enough to take up any slack left. Few are investing in this economy.”


The boycott of US brands adds to the United States’ bind.


A majority of US states have passed bills and executive orders designed to discourage boycotts of Israel. Many of them have been passed with broad bipartisan support. The orders have been challenged in the courts as violations of freedom of speech.


The Supreme Court last year opted not to review a law that penalises boycotting Israel in Arkansas.


Even so, calls for boycotts of Israel and US brands are likely to be fuelled not only by the continuation of the Gaza war but also by a potential International Court of Justice ruling against Israel, and escalating hostilities in the Red Sea.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


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