by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
5 January 1996
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali held separate talks with
the presidents of Yemen and Eritrea last weekend in an effort to resolve the conflict over
a group of islands in the Red Sea. Earlier Eritrea had released 196 Yemeni soldiers and 17
civilians taken prisoner when it seized control of Greater Hanish island on December 18.
The dispute over this obscure 12-mile strip of land has already sparked a war of words
between the Arab League and the Organisation of African Unity and cast a shadow over one
of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Greater Hanish is one of three main islands in an
archipelago near the southern mouth of the Red Sea, dividing the waterway into two strips
little more than 30 miles wide. All shipping from the Suez canal passes the islands en
route to the Indian Ocean. At least since the British occupation of Aden, the islands have
generally been regarded as part of Yemen. Eritrean claims to the territory began in
earnest only last year, and two rounds of talks had taken place before the invasion.
Eritrea's case appears to be based on an earlier Ethiopian claim.
Until recently Greater Hanish was inhabited only by a
handful of Yemeni fishermen, apart from a short period when Yemen allowed Eritrean
guerrillas to use it as a base for their liberation struggle. Last year a German company,
under Yemeni auspices, began building a hotel and scuba diving centre there. The Yemenis
then sent a force of 200 men, ostensibly to guard the construction site.
The Eritrean attack took Yemen by surprise - especially
since President Issayas Afewerki had sent a conciliatory note to his Yemeni counterpart,
Ali Abdullah Salih, only a few hours earlier. For the invasion the Eritreans used all the
seaworthy vessels they had, according to one source, including local fishing boats and an
Egyptian ferry which they commandeered. During the fighting a passing Russian merchant
ship was hit and damaged in mistake for a Yemeni naval vessel.
The motives for the attack remain puzzling but three
different theories have emerged. The first, and simplest, is that the Eritreans became
alarmed by the growing Yemeni presence on the island and over-reacted. The Eritrean
leaders are young, adventurous and inexperienced in government: after years of guerrilla
warfare they still have what one Yemeni official called "a rebel mind-set".
The second theory comes from Yemeni opposition sources.
They claim that during the 1994 war against southern separatists Sana'a received various
forms of help from Eritrea, which acted as intermediary in supplying aircraft spares from
Israel. The Eritreans took Hanish, they say, when Sana'a failed to deliver the promised
reward. This (perhaps too predictably) contrives to accuse the Sana'a government of
perfidy while also implicating Israel in its 1994 victory.
The third theory directly implicates Israel in the capture
of Hanish. In view of Yemen's military humiliation in the battle for the island, this
might be considered as nothing more than an attempt by Sana'a to save some face. The
details, however, are interesting. Sources close to the Yemeni president claim - on the
basis of intercepted radio messages in Hebrew - that "several Israelis" had
helped to direct the Eritrean operation, including a Lieutenant-Colonel named as Michael
Duma. Despite this, Yemen has made no formal complaint to Israel.
The claim is also linked to speculation that Eritrea plans
to give Israel a strategic base at the southern end of the Red Sea. Relations between
Eritrea and Israel are warm; President Afewerki has reportedly been there for medical
treatment. An intriguing twist to this theory is the suggestion that Israel has no real
intention of setting up a base in the southern Red Sea but merely wants to establish the
threat in order to bind Yemen more firmly into the Middle East peace process.