Houthis : A remote threat to Israel?

Houthis, the Shiite Muslim armed group from Yemen, have recently made headlines by launching attacks on Israel, a country located about 2,000 km away. This unexpected move has added a new layer of complexity to the already tense situation in the region, especially as Israel deals with its ongoing campaign against Hamas.

The Pentagon reported on October 19 that its destroyer in the Red Sea intercepted three missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) launched from Yemen aimed at Israel. Subsequently, on October 31, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) successfully intercepted a surface-to-surface missile targeting the city of Eilat in the south of the country.

All these attacks were attributed to the Houthi armed group, known for its presence and influence in Yemen. The group issued a warning, stating that it would continue its attacks until Israel ceases its perceived aggression in the Gaza Strip.

The Houthis, emerging in the 2000s, initially formed to confront President Ali Abdullah Saleh, accusing him of corruption and aligning with Saudi Arabia and the US. Their appeal in Yemen grew by presenting themselves as champions of economic development and advocates for ending the political marginalization of Shiite Muslims.

Since 2014, the Houthis have controlled Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, sparking a prolonged civil war. The conflict intensified in 2015 when a Saudi-backed coalition involving other Gulf states intervened against the Houthis, who now control significant portions of western Yemen, including major population centers.

The war has resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties and triggered a humanitarian crisis, labeled by the United Nations as the “world’s worst crisis” in 2021. The Houthis have a history of attacking Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), targeting both oil infrastructure and civilian areas.

However, the recent attacks on Israel mark a significant shift, as it is the first time the group has targeted a country not directly involved in Yemen’s civil war. The geographical distance between Yemen and Israel, separated by Saudi Arabia, adds a layer of complexity to this remote threat.

The ideological connection between the Houthis and Iran is a crucial aspect. Like other groups, such as Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis receive support from Iran. While they are Shiite Muslims, they belong to the Zaydi minority, with certain beliefs and teachings that differ from mainstream Shiites.

Dr. Brandon Friedman from the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University emphasizes common goals between Iran and the Houthis. Iran has actively supported the Houthis in their conflicts, providing training, equipment, logistics, and funding. The shared ideology of anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment, and opposition to the Israeli presence in the region has become integral to the Shiite revival ideology.

However, Friedman objects to categorizing the Houthis solely as Iranian “proxies,” suggesting that “partner” is a more accurate description. The Houthis, according to him, did not emerge out of nowhere, and their anti-Zionist and anti-Israel ideology partly explains their targeting of Israel.

Ilan Zalayat, a researcher at the Gulf States Program of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, sheds light on the Houthi’s preferred method of attack—Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). He notes their expertise in deploying large groups of UAVs, which are challenging to intercept. This method has proven effective in targeting infrastructure, including oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and civilian areas.

“The Houthis have been attacking targets in Saudi Arabia for many years,” Friedman adds. “They even attacked Jeddah and Riyadh, about 1,000 km from Yemen. Last year, Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, was also targeted by the Houthis, while it is located on the other side of the Gulf. So, the Houthis clearly have the ability to attack civilian targets far from where they operate.”

A strategic concern arises from the Houthi’s proximity to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a vital waterway connecting the Indian Ocean with the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Friedman expresses worry about potential Houthi attacks on shipping through this strait, posing a risk of escalation. The Houthis, despite their distance from Israel, have a strategic advantage due to their proximity to major shipping routes.

Zalayat adds that such attacks on shipping would have a significant negative impact on the global economy. The use of UAVs to target cargo and merchant ships in the Red Sea could disrupt vital trade routes, affecting not only Israel but also other countries.

Despite the Houthis being listed as a terrorist organization by the US, President Joe Biden’s administration removed them from the list in 2021 as a goodwill gesture. The move aimed to encourage the Houthis to reduce hostility, engage in negotiations and contribute to improving the civil war situation in Yemen.

Critics argue that the Houthi’s participation in regional conflicts complicates Israel’s anti-Hamas campaign and increases the risk of conflict spreading throughout the region—a scenario Western allies, including the US, seek to prevent.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, urges reconsideration of the Houthi’s terrorist designation. He emphasizes the group’s actions and words, claiming that the attacks against US and Israeli military assets demonstrate their alignment with the Iran-led axis of resistance.

In conclusion, the Houthi threat to Israel introduces a complex geopolitical dynamic in the Middle East. The group’s actions, supported by Iran, have far-reaching implications not only for the immediate region but also for global trade routes. As international stakeholders navigate this intricate situation, the potential for escalation remains a significant concern, demanding careful monitoring and diplomatic efforts to address the root causes of the conflict.