Houthis’ off-script threat to Israel built on improved weaponry

Israeli military deployed missile boats in the Red Sea a day after the rebels said they launched missile and drone attacks

Houthi fighters with Palestinian flags during a military manoeuvre on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen. EPA
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From long-range missiles to explosive drones, the weaponry used by Yemen’s Houthi rebels have become more sophisticated since the civil war erupted in the impoverished country in 2014, posing a threat to the region.

But the Israel-Gaza conflict provided the Iran-backed militia with the ultimate opportunity to try to elevate their status as a regional player, by targeting an “enemy” located 1,600km away.

Just like Hezbollah in Lebanon and other armed groups in Syria and Iraq, the Houthis are part of the “Axis of Resistance”, an anti-western political and military coalition led by Tehran.

The militia holds Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, and controls the north and parts of the country's western coast.

Up until the end of 2018, the Houthis frequently used ballistic missiles captured from army depots. But in the past five years they have shifted to small, long-range, explosive unmanned aircraft that can evade radar detection.

“The group’s ballistic missiles and drones’ capabilities have significantly increased with Iran support since 2015,” said Farea Al-Muslimi, research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House.

“By 2018, their ballistic missiles could reach up to 1,500km. By 2022, their ballistic abilities could reach 2,000km – all the way to southern Israel.”

Helicopters and a jet fighter

Thousands of Houthi fighters marched under the scorching sun to mark the eighth anniversary of Sanaa’s takeover in September. Helicopters and a jet fighter flew at low altitude over the Yemeni capital.

“Although the flashy appearance of a 1970s-era F-5 fighter flying over Sanaa may have grabbed eyeballs, the true headline of the ... military display was the implied increase in Houthi missile range and accuracy,” according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The parade showed off their latest military arsenal, including the long-range cruise missile Toophan (Storm) with a reported range of 2,000km, and explosives-laden drones that can hit targets up to 1,500km away.

On Tuesday, the Hezbollah-inspired rebels said they fired missiles and drones towards Israel in retaliation for the Gaza war, signalling a new off-script front in the conflict by one of the Iran-backed militias in the Middle East.

Israel's air defence systems intercepted a missile launched from the Red Sea region, its army said. Jets also shot down other targets, it added.

Last week, projectiles struck two Egyptian towns near Israel. Israeli authorities blamed the attack on an “aerial threat” in the Red Sea region, likely to be a reference to the Houthis.

The militia has also been accused by the Pentagon this month of launching missiles and drones that were intercepted by a US Navy ship in the Red Sea.

“We are aware that the Houthis did fire a medium-range ballistic missile or cruise missile … targeting Israel,” Pentagon press secretary Brig Gen Pat Ryder said on Tuesday.

“This is something that we will continue to monitor. As we’ve said before, we want to prevent a broader regional conflict. We will continue to stay in close contact with our partners in the region to make sure that we continue to do that.”

Golden opportunity

The launch of the missiles and drones coincides with pro-Iranian militant groups attacking US bases in Syria and Iraq where American troops are stationed, while the scale and intensity of the Lebanon front between Hezbollah and Israel increases.

Iran said it was natural for Tehran-backed groups to attack Israel in light of its war on Hamas, warning of a wider spill-over as the conflict turns into an urban warfare in the Gaza Strip.

“This war is a golden opportunity for the group to demonstrate it is pro-Palestine, and anti-Israel and US, especially to its local population,” Mr Al-Muslimi said.

“No matter what the consequences might be of those attacks, no one should underestimate this Houthi recklessness.”

Experts say that the Houthis can “handle the price” of any retaliation more than any other Iran ally in the region.

While it will be hard for Israel to retaliate right away, the US is unlikely to bomb a country devastated by nine years of war and the site of one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world.

On Wednesday, the Israeli military said it sent missile boats in the Red Sea as reinforcements, a day after the rebels said they had launched the missile and drone attacks on Israel and vowed to carry out more.

“Strikes with missiles and drones will continue until the Israeli aggression stops,” the rebels said.

Updated: November 01, 2023, 1:39 PM