Houthi attacks won't help a single Palestinian

Seizing ships and firing missiles only jeopardise Yemen's fragile hopes for peace

A member of Yemen's Houthi militia covers his face with a Palestinian scarf during a rally in Sanaa this week. EPA
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Waging war and negotiating peace are serious businesses, especially so when the lives of millions hang in the balance. Yemen is a particularly apposite example, where, according to the UN’s World Food Programme, 21.6 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance and 17 million people do not have enough food on a daily basis.

Many will have welcomed reports this week that Yemen’s main warring parties – the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the country’s internationally recognised government – are considering a preliminary ceasefire that could allow peace talks to take place. The stakes are high for the Yemeni people who have endured much during more than a decade of unforgiving conflict that many hoped had been coming to an end.

This makes the latest demand from the Houthis that their seizure of a civilian ship in the Red Sea, attacks on others and repeated firing of missiles towards Israel be treated in isolation from Yemen’s fragile peace process particularly frustrating.

Yemen's Houthis release footage of cargo ship seizure

Yemen's Houthis release footage of cargo ship seizure

The rebels cannot have it both ways. If one of the Houthis’ ostensible goals is to end western interference in their country and the region, then repeatedly staging attacks that are almost guaranteed to draw a western military response reveals either cynicism or an unsustainable doublethink. How the rebels’ negotiating partners or those mediating peace talks are meant to look the other way when confronted by such destabilising threats is a difficult question to answer.

The purported solidarity with Gaza that Houthis think they are showing, far from helping a single Palestinian, instead raises the risk of an armed escalation in which no one wins. The rebel’s seizure of the Galaxy Leader and its 25-strong crew at gunpoint last month is a particularly egregious case. The vessel has since become something of a local tourist attraction hosting “cultural activities in solidarity with the Palestinian people”, the rebel-controlled Saba news agency said on Monday.

How capturing a Bahamas-flagged, Japanese-operated cargo ship and its civilian crew made up of seafarers from countries including Bulgaria, the Philippines, Mexico and Ukraine helps Palestinians in any practical way is a question only the rebels can answer, but few can argue that rationally it does. Contrast this with the considerable humanitarian, diplomatic and political efforts being undertaken by many other Arab states that helps to save lives, builds support for a ceasefire and raises the Palestinian issue at the highest international level. This work, although ongoing, is having results. This week an emergency session of the UN General Assembly voted by a large majority to call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, exposing the diplomatic isolation being experienced by countries that have yet to lend support to a much-needed truce.

Instead of targeting civilian shipping, launching missiles across international airspace and engaging in a dangerous game of chicken with powerful foreign militaries, the Houthis would be better served by re-engaging with the political process, delivering for the people under their rule and bringing calm back to this important corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Engaging in what amounts to piracy helps noone, least of all the rebels themselves.

Published: December 15, 2023, 3:00 AM