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Why the Houthis Attacked Israel

Yemen’s Houthis recent attacks on Israel by missile launching and ship hijacking reflect their deep ideological convictions and close association with strategies and actions of Iranian-backed groups across the Middle East. These tactics are intended to increase their standing among the Arab and Yemeni populace. Nonetheless, such activities could potentially obstruct the United States and regional allies’ diplomatic endeavors to settle the persisting turmoil in Yemen.

On October 19, the Iranian-aligned Ansar Allah movement in Yemen, commonly known as the Houthis, fired five missiles and around 30 drones toward Israel. According to the Wall Street Journal, a U.S. Navy warship, the USS Carney, shot down four of the missiles, and Saudi Arabia intercepted the last to protect its airspace; each of the drones was also downed before reaching Israel. The Prime Minister of the Houthi-led National Salvation Government (NSG), Abdulaziz bin Habtoor, took credit for the attack, though he insisted not all the drones and missiles were intercepted. He also warned that Israeli ships in the Red Sea would be targeted if the airstrikes on Gaza continued. This warning was actualized when, on November 20, a ship owned by an Israeli businessman was hijacked in the Red Sea. Earlier in October, the deputy information secretary of the Houthis, Nasreddin Amer, said the group would be ready to join the conflict if necessary.

Throughout the war in Yemen, the Houthis have made significant improvements to their weapons stockpiles, due in large part to Iranian assistance. Although the civil war has largely been dormant for the past 18 months, these developments have continued; in September, the Houthis revealed a new ballistic missile they named the ‘Toufan’—a rebranding of the Iranian ‘Ghadr’ missile. The Toufan has an expected range of 1,350-1,900 kilometers, placing Israel within striking distance. This range, moreover, is exceeded by other weapons that the Houthis claim to possess, such as Wa’id drones with an estimated range of 2,500 kilometers.

Houthis’ Motives and Calculations

The Houthis have never been subtle in their anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic attitudes: the group’s slogan reads, “God is greatest, death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews, victory to Islam.” This slogan is chanted as a mantra by Houthi fighters, both in political events and on the battlefield; a banner featuring the slogan is used as the group’s de facto emblem.

Given this position, it comes as no surprise that the Houthis have repeatedly threatened to strike Israel. However, the recent attack is believed to be the first time they have actually tried to do so. The reasons for their reluctance to do so are multifold, but the most obvious of these is that the Houthis have always had targets in closer range—notably Saudi Arabia, against which the group conducted dozens of missile and drone attacks per year during the most active phase of the Yemen conflict. Other reasons for Houthi hesitancy might include the logistical challenges of a strike on Israel, as well as possible retaliation from Tel Aviv if such a strike were successful.

The current Gaza war, however, is the worst escalation in decades between Hamas and Israel. For the Houthis, the escalation may have offered the rebels a chance to reaffirm their stance on the Palestinian issue, which is central to their professed ideology. The Yemeni people, who are overwhelmingly pro-Palestine and anti-Israel, are likely to support the move, and such a strike could result in an upsurge in domestic support.

It could also be argued that the recent Houthi attack towards Israel seeks to contribute to shifting Israel’s attention to more than one front. Since the beginning of the ongoing Yemeni civil war, the Houthis have contested much of the Red Sea, threatening to strike commercial shipping in the waterway. Israel relies heavily on the Red Sea for its foreign trade, so it is not difficult to discern that the Houthis’ capability to attack ships in the Red Sea is a grave national security matter for Tel Aviv. Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hegari noted during a press engagement that his country’s air force was prepared to repel the Houthi attacks. One way this could be interpreted is as an Israeli warning to the Houthis that they will not tolerate attacks against Israeli territories or interests, suggesting that Tel Aviv is likely to retaliate militarily if there is an assault on its ships in the Red Sea.

Another possible aim of the Houthi attack toward Israel and hijacking the ship is to portray the unity of the “Axis of Resistance,” the Tehran-led network of Shi’a factions across the Middle East. On October 10, the leader of the Yemeni rebels, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, said in a televised speech that his group was in “complete coordination” with the “Axis of Resistance”; this gesture was notable, as the Houthis are generally considered to be far more independent from Iran than other parties like Hezbollah in Lebanon. Moreover, the rebels’ attack on Israel has also coincided with attacks conducted by pro-Tehran militias on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria.

Escalating Conflicts and Shifting Dynamics

There is an already existing threat that the Houthis could attack U.S. interests. If the scale of the Hamas-Israel conflict becomes larger, the likelihood of Houthi attacks against U.S. interests is also likely to increase. Indeed, the recent Hamas-Israel escalation presents a significant challenge for Washington’s policy in Yemen, which had previously heralded the 18-month ceasefire in that country as a major accomplishment. In an email interview, Middle East expert and former U.S. State Department analyst Gregory Aftandilian said, “Prior to the Israel-Hamas war, there seemed to be some movement on a resolution to the Yemen conflict and the U.S. was supporting UN efforts to mediate between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.” Aftandilian noted, however, that “the attempts by the Houthis to launch strikes against Israel (even though they failed) has set back U.S. efforts to work with the Houthis to end the Yemeni war. Moreover, the U.S. does not want the Israel-Hamas work to lead to a regional war, and it will undoubtedly see more Houthi provocations as going down that road.”

For Yemen, the main concern relates to the extent to which the Houthis can distance the country from the Hamas-Israel war. On October 17, U.S. Special Envoy to Yemen Timothy Lenderking said that his “worst fear… is that Yemen gets dragged into another war, and [Yemen’s] war is not over yet.” Fortunately, it seems unlikely that the Houthis will become deeply involved in the Gaza war. Its stance is most likely to reflect that of Hezbollah, a close ally; if Hezbollah increases its involvement in the conflict, it is safe to expect the Houthis to do so as well. This can be seen in their apparent alignment with Hezbollah’s “mutual deterrence” approach with Israel, rather than directly attempting to raise tensions.

In September 2023, following months of back-channel discussions, a Houthi delegation visited Riyadh and met the Saudi defense minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman. In a statement, the Saudi Foreign Ministry “welcomed the positive results of the serious discussions regarding reaching a road map to support the peace path in Yemen.” A few days following the visit, however, the Houthis conducted a drone strike that killed four Bahraini soldiers on the Saudi border, suggesting an internal division within the rebels’ leadership. On October 23, the Houthis conducted another attack on the border, killing a fifth Bahraini soldier.

The recent Hamas-Israel escalation, and the reported Saudi interception of a Houthi missile toward Israel, raises the question of the regional developments’ implications on Riyadh-Houthi ties. In an email interview, Yemen expert Helen Lackner said that Riyadh’s approach to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war had been “very careful.” She added that she believed the war had had, “no direct impact on Saudi-H[o]uthi talks,” at least for the time being, but that could easily change in the future “depend[ing] on what happens.” A range of political developments in the region—between Israel and Hamas, between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and even within the Houthi movement—could change the calculus for all.

If the Hamas-Israel war sees a significant escalation, it could pressure more regional parties to participate. For Yemen, the ongoing civil war has already torn apart the country; the last thing Yemenis want is to be part of another conflict. While there has been some slow progress in the back-channel Saudi-Houthi talks, the priority now is monitoring the Gaza war and its regional implications. Any participation of Yemen in an external conflict is not only likely to delay the internal peace process, but could also mean more misery and starvation for a country that has experienced a decade-long war and deserves a lasting peace.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security, Geopolitics
Country: Yemen

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Abdulaziz Kilani is a British-Arab writer, who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa region. His articles and work have been published by several media outlets, including Middle East Eye, Responsible Statecraft, The American Conservative, and The Globe Post. He tweets as @AZ_Kilani.


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