Ari Heistein

Houthi Attacks – the Opening Shot for Something Else?

In many ways, the Houthi threat is not unique. The Houthis, or Ansar Allah, are an Arab group of Shiite Muslims who have been trained, armed, and indoctrinated by Iran. Similar groups can be found in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq – all of which have launched strikes against Israel since October 7th. But just grouping the Houthis in with the rest of the regional threats Israel faces does not fully explain the group, the risks it poses to Israel’s national security, or what its end goals may be.

The Houthi threat has been hiding in plain sight for years. Their declared intentions, “death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, victory to Islam,” remained just words even long after they took over Yemen’s Western coast and demonstrated the ability to harass maritime traffic. It is worth noting that they attacked the Government of Yemen’s energy export shipping, bringing it to a halt, well before they attacked Israeli or international maritime traffic in November 2023. Likewise, since 2018 they had targeted assets in the Gulf over 1400 KM away with missiles and drones, so it was only a matter of time before their capabilities (as supplied by Iran) would advance to the point of reaching Israel. If anyone wasn’t paying attention to the group’s progress, four years ago the Houthis openly declared their intentions and capabilities by claiming they had a bank of viable military targets in Israel.

Since then, the Houthis have proven that they are unique among Iran’s proxies as they are the only ones with a known capability to launch ballistic missiles with a range of around 2000 KM. In part this may be because Iran’s other proxies surrounding Israel, like Lebanese Hezbollah, do not need that type of range to strike anywhere in the country as Israel is a geographically small state and they are just over the border rather than 1600 KM away. Of course, these capabilities were not designed and constructed in Yemen, but supplied by Iran and smuggled via a variety of different maritime and overland routes which include Yemen’s port of Hodeida and its porous border with Oman. Nevertheless, the distance does add some additional complexities to formulating an Israeli response.

Thus far, no Houthi missile attacks on Israeli territory have landed, and so the missiles and drones have been more of an irritant than anything else. But it would be difficult to deny that the group has caused a diversion of resources from an Israeli army already preoccupied with intensive fighting on at least two fronts. In addition, the fact that the Houthi attacks on Eilant have not caused any death or injury thus far is hardly a license to ignore them, as it does not negate their capability to inflict destruction in the event of a stealthy surprise attack or human error. It is entirely conceivable that in the future, when Houthis are facing sagging popularity at home due to a dismal economy or a misstep that arouses the public’s anger, they will sporadically launch some more missiles at Israel to conflate their group with the Palestinian cause (which is widely supported in Yemen).

Of course, it is also important to mention the Houthis’ positioning along the Red Sea. While they do not have actual control of the Bab el-Mandeb maritime chokepoint, as that belongs to militias led by the UAE-backed Tareq Saleh, they do have control of nearby coastal areas including the coastal province of Hodeida. Access to the Red Sea near to Bab al-Mandeb provides a very strategic base from which to launch attacks on international maritime commerce. Since October 7th, they have claimed to only target Israel-connected shipping but the reality is that they have been taking potshots at all different types of commercial ships, some with no connection to Israel at all.  This has raised insurance rates, and hence consumer prices, for anything that is imported via the Red Sea shipping – including goods purchased both by Israelis as well as the already impoverished Yemenis (who import a great deal of their foodstuffs).

It will be difficult to eliminate the Houthis’ ability to threaten maritime traffic for the simple reason that they have so many different and inexpensive means to do so. They can launch anti-Ship missiles from the coast, release naval mines, launch attack drones from inland, or fire anti-tank missiles or other weapons from Yemeni fishing vessels known as dhows. It would likely be more effective to convince the Houthis that they are better off not attacking maritime traffic because they will suffer a painful response which is tailored to their motives for launching such attacks, rather than playing defense at all times and trying to prevent or intercept every single attack.

One of the immediate triggers for Yemen’s Houthis to launch an attack against Israel, in addition to October 7th massacres and the war against Hamas which followed, was the intense domestic pressure facing the group due to the disastrous economic situation in Yemen. The group was beset with unprecedented public opposition in areas they controlled, which was quite surprising for an organization that has at least four domestic intelligence agencies designed specifically to repress that. For now, without having improved the economic situation and probably even making it considerably worse due to increasing the cost of imports, they seem to have alleviated public pressure and rallied Yemeni support behind the group in its attacks on Israel.

However, the Israeli front is not necessarily the only important front on which the Houthis are currently escalating, and it may not even be the most important one from Sanaa’s perspective. As the Houthis come closer to reaching a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia, which they are hoping will translate into Riyadh leaving Yemenis to their own devices, the Houthis may believe that the attack on Israel is the perfect way to garner widespread popular support before making a renewed effort to conquer the rest of Yemen. While the most immediate victims of such a development would be the Yemenis subjected to the brutality of Houthi rule, there can be little doubt that the expansion of the Houthi base of terror in Yemen will bode ill for Israel, regional stability, and the global economy.

About the Author
Ari Heistein was chief of staff and a research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). He works in defense technology and has published extensive research on Yemen.
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