Are Yemen’s Houthi rebels a threat to Israel during the Gaza war?

Iran-backed militant group has amassed arsenal of long-range drones and ballistic missiles

Houthi fighters march during a military parade in Sanaa, Yemen. EPA
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Despite being 1,600km away, Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels could emerge as a threat to Israel as it continues hammering Gaza with air strikes, three weeks after the surprise attack by Hamas.

The heavily armed militia that holds the capital of war-torn Yemen has been accused by the Pentagon of launching a series of missiles and drones that were intercepted by a US Navy ship in the Red Sea last week.

On Friday, projectiles struck two Egyptian towns near Israel. Israeli authorities blamed the attack on an “aerial threat” in the Red Sea region, likely referring to the Houthis, who control northern Yemen and parts of its western coast.

“These are symbolic attacks but important messages from Iran that its allies can try to attack Israel from different places and even hit US targets,” Maged Al Madhaji, co-founder of the Sanaa Centre for Strategic Studies, told The National.

“Houthis can handle the price more than any other Iran ally in the region – they will pay the cheapest price” to any retaliation.

Targets in Israel

From ballistic missiles to unmanned drones, Yemen’s rebels have bolstered their fighting capabilities since the civil war started in the country in 2014, posing a serious threat to its neighbours.

Up until the end of 2018, the Houthis frequently used ballistic missiles they 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.

Addressing last week’s incident in the Red Sea, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig Gen Pat Ryder said that it is uncertain what the intended target of the intercepted missiles and drones was.

“But they were launched from Yemen heading north along the Red Sea, potentially towards targets in Israel,” he explained. He added that they were “launched by Houthi forces in Yemen”.

The Houthis have not commented.

However, three days after the Hamas attack that killed about 1,400 in Israel, the rebels’ leader Abdel-Malek Al Houthi warned that his militia is “ready to engage” with the co-ordination of Iran allies in the region.

Iranian message

The launch of the missiles and drones last week coincided with pro-Iranian militant groups attacking US bases hosting American troops in Syria and Iraq.

It also occurred 23 years after the attack on the destroyer the USS Cole at the port of Aden in Yemen, which resulted in the loss of 17 American sailors and injuries to about 40 other crew members. The October 12 attacks were carried out by Al Qaeda.

Houthi rebels are seeking “to reinforce the group’s regional affiliation under the Axis of Resistance”, the Washington-based Middle East Institute said last week.

They “also seek to send a message to the United States that in the future they could target US or Israeli interests in the region, including those passing through the Red Sea and Bab Al Mandab Strait”, a main passage for trade and oil tankers.

As Tehran rallies its allies behind a broader Middle East conflict, it “makes sense” for the Houthis, whose banner calls for the “death of Israel”, to emerge as a player, said Mr Madhaji.

“It will be hard for Israel to retaliate right away, and the US won’t heavily bomb a country devastated” by nine years of war and one the biggest humanitarian crises in the world.

Updated: October 30, 2023, 7:44 AM