(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden is heading back to the White House to consult with his national security team about the Middle East as Israel restricted public life in preparation for a possible attack by Iran or its proxies. 

Israel and its allies, led by the US, are bracing for an Iranian response to a suspected Israeli attack on Iran’s embassy in Syria on April 1. Iran said Saturday its forces seized an Israel-linked container ship near the Strait of Hormuz. 

Biden, who was cutting short a weekend at his private residence in Delaware to return to Washington, has expressed full US backing for Israel’s defense —  a pledge reiterated by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday.

While Israelis tried to go about their daily lives, officials stepped up preparations for a possible attack, including military measures and restrictions on public gatherings. The Home Front Command said it ordered a halt to educational activities for two days beginning Saturday night and limited gatherings to 1,000 people, or fewer in some areas. 

“In recent days we have strengthened our defensive and offensive array and we are determined to take any measures required to defend” Israel’s citizens, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a statement Saturday. That includes adding capabilities on land, in the air, at sea and in intelligence within Israel and in partnership with the US, he said.

Speculation about a weekend attack on Israel has mounted as Biden said Friday he expected Iranian retaliation “sooner rather than later.” Potential scenarios included an unprecedented drone and missile strike on Israeli territory, Bloomberg reported. Tehran signaled to Western countries that it would retaliate in a “calibrated” manner to avoid an all-out regional conflict, the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times reported.

Restrictions for the sake of Israelis’ safety include a halt to day camps and trips by educational institutions, Israel Defense Forces spokesman Daniel Hagari told reporters. While Israel’s air force has “dozens of planes in the skies — prepared and ready,” air defense “is not hermetic” and people need to act responsibly and calmly, he said.



Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency said special forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boarded the MSC Aries from a helicopter and directed it toward Iranian territorial waters. IRNA gave no reason for the seizure. The ship’s beneficial owner is Zodiac Maritime Ltd., part of Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The UK’s Joint Maritime Information Center said it’s likely the ship was targeted for its perceived Israeli affiliation. IRNA didn’t give a reason for the seizure.

The vessel most recently stopped at Khalifa Port in the United Arab Emirates, according to ship-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg. Calls for its immediate release came from the White House and Portugal, the ship’s flag country.

Read more: Israel Bracing for Unprecedented Direct Iran Attack in Days 

A Zodiac representative directed queries to operator MSC. An MSC spokesman confirmed the seizure and said the ship was boarded by Iranian forces at around 6:43 a.m. United Arab Emirates time while passing through the Strait of Hormuz. MSC is working to ensure the well-being of the 25 crew and the vessel’s safe return, he said.

Indian officials said 17 Indian nationals, two Pakistanis, a Russian and an Estonian are aboard the vessel and the government is in touch with Iran via diplomatic channels to secure their release. 

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called the seizure a “pirate operation in violation of international law,” in a post on X.

Zodiac’s ships have been repeatedly targeted in the same area in recent years in attacks that the US and Israel have blamed on Iran. Tehran previously denied involvement. Most recently, an airborne object hit the Campo Square oil tanker in the Arabian Sea in Feb. 2023.

Shipping Disruption

The seizure widened concerns around commercial shipping in the Middle East since the outbreak of war Oct. 7 between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in Gaza that’s backed by Tehran. Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union.

Risks have so far been focused in the Red Sea, where Iran’s Yemeni allies the Houthis have repeatedly targeted ships that they say are linked to Israel or its allies. 

Read More: The ‘No-Fail’ Mission to Protect the Red Sea Isn’t Working

Saturday’s seizure brought attention back to the Strait of Hormuz, a key chokepoint for energy shipments through which around a fifth of the world’s daily oil supply passes. 

The head of the IRGC’s naval forces, Alireza Tangsiri, said on Tuesday that Iran has the option of blocking the Strait of Hormuz amid rising tensions with Israel but has chosen not to. 

“An already bad situation in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden has just got worse and could put ocean freight container imports and oil exports in the Middle East at risk,” said Peter Sand, chief analyst at Oslo-based shipping-analytics company Xeneta. 

“If ships are impacted from sailing into the Arabian Gulf then the disruption would be considerable.”

--With assistance from Charles Capel, Alex Longley and Alisa Odenheimer.

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