While Israel remains under fire from Lebanon in the north and Gaza, the real media focus yesterday was on Eilat, as a mysterious drone strike hit a school in the Red Sea city to be followed by ballistic missiles fired towards the city which were downed by the Arrow missile defense system.
Unlike the rockets, mortars, and terrorist infiltrations emanating from Israel’s immediate neighbors like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the like, these threats emanate from Houthi rebels in Yemen, hundreds of kilometers from Israeli direct borders. While many other Iranian-backed terror groups have joined the fight to make symbolic statements, or to distract Israel from being able to dedicate its full military might to dismantling Hamas in Gaza, the Houthi angle is more nuanced and opaque.
Israel is engaged in total war against Hamas in Gaza and many Iranian-aligned terror groups surrounding Israel have joined the fight. The most prominent of which is Hezbollah which has harassed Israel with rocket mortar and anti-tank missile attacks along the northern border. These serious and sometimes deadly, attacks have forced Israel to strategically limit their war effort in Gaza as they must dedicate significant deterrent forces north to prevent a full-fledged Hezbollah attack. From Syria, to Iraq to Yemen, other Iranian-backed extremism groups have joined the fight targeting Israeli or American Interests in the region with the primary purpose of keeping the heat up.
The Houthis likely have similar motivations but may also have a different goal. The Houties may be trying to entice an Israeli response against Yemen to achieve a much larger win in their long-fought battle against moderate Sunni-backed forces for control over Yemen itself.
Since 2015, the Saudis have led a mostly Arab coalition effort code-named “Operation Decisive Storm” to ensure the Houthis could not take control over all of Yemen and transform the entire nation into another satellite state for Iran as was done with Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. This operation has since transformed into “Operation Restoring Hope” which has seen swaths of Yemen remain out of Houthi hands. The Houthis, like Hamas, frequently launch drone and missile attacks into coalition countries such as Saudi Arabia and occasionally other Gulf nations.
Israel’s response to the October 7, Massacre committed by Hamas has led to many difficult images of innocent Palestinians wounded and killed which have been greatly amplified by Anti-Israel propagandists. This has already put some pressure on Israel’s Arab allies to disengage from Israel due to the perceived atrocities committed by Israel against the Palestinians. This has already led to the recalling of Arab ambassadors, condemnations, and the cooling of ties.
Under the surface, however, the Arab states’ perceptions of the conflict are more nuanced and durable. Nonetheless, the demand of the “Arab street” requires some level of distance and perhaps also a constant voice reminding Israel about the need to avoid civilian casualties. That is not to say that the Abraham Accords are doomed but that relationships are more fragile at the moment, although long term will likely survive and thrive.
With this context in mind, the Houthi strikes on Israel while no doubt serving to support their fellow extremists in Gaza, likely serve a far more strategic and self-serving objective and borrow from Sadam Hussien’s playbook. Back in 1991 during the first Gulf War, a global coalition including many Arab states led by the United States liberated Kuwait. In an attempt to weaken the resolve, popularity, and perhaps the very existence of this united coalition, Iraq showered scud missiles into Israeli cities hoping to draw Israel into a retaliation that, especially back in 1991, would have appeared to the broader Arab world as an Israeli coordinated effort with Arab states against a fellow Arab country. The aspiration of Sadam was that such an Israeli response would force the withdrawal of Arab states from the global coalition against Iraqi forces due to pressure from the so-called “Arab street.” With much proactive effort from the United States, Israel did not retaliate and the war to liberate Kuwait carried on.
It is very likely that the Houthis hope to achieve something similar by leveraging the deep anger at Israel seething from the Arab street. They are likely hoping for a retaliatory Israeli strike in Yemen that they could cast as a coordinated effort by Israel and the Saudi lead coalition. This, in turn, might weaken the popularity and resolve of the coalition and its continued efforts against the Houthis.
Israel, with already delicate ties with its Arab partners and allies, who despite the situation have not severed ties, must take such sensitivity into account as they calculate what should be done with the Houthi threat. Israel must carefully weigh this issue in deciding when, how, and if even if to respond to the Houthi provocation and threat. If the missile and drone threat can be contained by defensive systems, consideration of a delayed or clandestine response later might serve Israel’s longer-term interests.
This morning we woke up to see that the IDF struck unspecified targets in Syria in retaliation for the Eilat attacks and heard rumors that the Houthi-controlled internet in Yemen was down. Such indirect responses, assuming that Israel is behind them, demonstrate so far that Israel is keeping her Arab partners in mind and isn’t falling for the Houthis trap.