The Houthis Declare War On Israel – OpEd


In the early days of November a considerable amount of journalistic ink was spilled countering a report that appeared on several social media sites.  On October 31 a post on X, formerly Twitter, stated: “Breaking: Yemen declared they are now at war with Israel.”  According to Newsweek, it was viewed 7.1 million times.  The news site USA Today reported that a similar post had appeared on Instagram, and went on to state categorically that the story was untrue. One after another, the news media scrambled to deny the report.

In fact the internationally recognized government (IRG) of Yemen, led by Rashid al-Alami, has not attacked Israel by word or deed.  But for the past nine years Yemen has been in the throes of a vicious civil war initiated by the Houthis, a Shia-allied group that emerged in the early 2000s in opposition to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Supported, financed and equipped by Iran, the Houthis have gained control of a considerable portion of Yemen, including the capital Sana’a. 

The Houthis, rallying behind a banner which reads in part: “Death to America; death to Israel, a curse on the Jews”, needed little prompting from their Iranian paymasters to support the Hamas massacre of October 7.  It was no doubt at Iran’s behest that the Houthis went on to plan a series of assaults on Israel.  Not all went according to plan. Three cruise missiles fired from Yemen on October 19 were intercepted by the US navy. A drone attack launched on October 28 apparently went off-course and resulted in explosions inside Egypt. 

On October 31 Houthi military spokesman, Yahya Saree, announced on TV that a “large number” of drones and ballistic missiles had been launched toward Israel. In reality they had little chance of hitting anything. More than 2,000 km (1,240 miles) away, Israel is at the very limit of even the longest-range Houthi missile. Moreover, to reach Israel, Houthi missiles must first evade US Navy ships patrolling the region, and then Israeli Navy missile corvettes stationed in the Red Sea.

Israel has said it destroyed an unidentified “aerial target” over the Red Sea on the morning of October 31 using the “Arrow” aerial defense system for the first time since the outbreak of war with Hamas.  “There was no threat or risk to civilians,” said the official report, but the incident triggered air raid sirens in the tourist resort of Eilat.

In announcing the strike, Saree declared that Houthi military activity against Israel would be maintained “to help the Palestinians to victory.”  His statement was a virtual declaration of war, but the fact that the attacks would emanate from Yemeni territory certainly does not mean that the state of Yemen would be in any way involved.. The legitimate government of Yemen, supported by Saudi Arabia, is fighting the Houthis – and through them Iran – for control of the country.  Nine years of conflict have seen the Houthis well entrenched in the area they have overrun, but still far from their goal of total control. In fact, according to Gregory D. Johnsen, a Yemen expert with the Arabian Gulf States Institute in Washington, in recent months anger has grown against Houthi rule within the area they control as the civil war grinds on without resolution.

“The Houthis view the war between Israel and Hamas as an opportunity to mute some of this domestic criticism,” Johnsen wrote in an analysis earlier this month. “If they are attacking Israel, their local rivals will be less inclined to attack them.”

This may be the motive behind the seizure on November 19 of a cargo ship connected at some remove to an Israeli businessman.  Houthi rebels boarded the ship in a crucial Red Sea shipping route, and took its 25 crew members hostage. 

“All ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or that deal with it will become legitimate targets,” they announced.

It suits Houthi propaganda to use the terms Houthi and Yemeni without distinction.  For example, when a senior Houthi official told an international news agency about its drone attack on southern Israel, Abdelaziz bin Habtour, prime minister of the Houthi government, added: “These drones belong to the state of Yemen.”

Later Mohammed Abdul-Salam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator, in a deliberately misleading statement that identified the Houthi militia with Yemen’s armed forces, declared: “The detention of the Israeli ship is a practical step that proves the seriousness of the Yemeni armed forces in waging the sea battle, regardless of its costs and costs. This is the beginning.”

The ship, the Galaxy Leader, flies the flag of the Bahamas, and is operated by the Japanese NYK Line.  Its crew is drawn from five different countries, none of which is Israel.  The ultimate owners are Ray Car Carriers, founded by Abraham “Rami” Ungar, an Israeli billionaire. A ship linked to him experienced an explosion in 2021 in the Gulf of Oman which Israeli media blamed on Iran.  Again on this occasion prime minister Netanyahu’s office condemned the seizure as an “Iranian act of terror.”  Since 2021, Iran has harassed, attacked or seized nearly 20 internationally flagged merchant vessels. 

The Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza are all part of an unofficial alliance that the Iranian regime likes to call “the Axis of Resistance.”  It includes other groups in Iraq and Syria, which have also been busy targeting US forces in those countries.  Over the past three weeks at least 40 separate drone and rocket attacks have been launched at US forces by Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, where a total of 3,400 American troops are based.  Fortunately many of the rockets and one-way attack drones were intercepted by US air defenses, and only minor injuries have resulted so far.  By manipulating events and avoiding any direct involvement, the Iranian regime has succeeded in souring the political atmosphere in the Middle East to the point, they hope, that any normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel – very much on the cards only a few short weeks ago – has become out of the question.

As for the Houthi organization, it has responded as ever to the self-interest of its Iranian masters and has willingly assumed the role of combatant against Israel on their behalf. 

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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