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Are Houthi confrontations on the Red Sea in support of Palestine or chips to blackmail Yemenis and Arabs?

Are Houthi confrontations on the Red Sea in support of Palestine or chips to blackmail Yemenis and Arabs?

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Politics Freedom of Expression

Thursday 4 January 202410:39 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

الحوثيون "يواجهون إسرائيل"… نصرةً للفلسطينيين أو لابتزاز اليمنيين والعرب؟


On October 30, 2023, Yahya Sare'e, a spokesperson for the Houthi military, announced missile and drone strikes on Israel using long-range ballistic missiles and drones. According to Sare'e, these strikes by the Houthis, in "support of [our] brothers in Palestine," catapulted the group, militarily supported by Iran, into a war on Israel.

The group did not stop there, and shortly thereafter resorted to the detention and targeting of Israeli-owned or operated ships in the Red Sea. On November 19, 2023, members of the Houthi group landed on the partially Israeli-owned ship Galaxy Leader via helicopter, and sailed the ship to the port of Hudaydah in western Yemen, rather than to India, its intended destination.

On December 3, 2023, the Houthis announced that their naval forces had attacked two Israeli ships, the Unity Explorer and Number 9, using an armed drone and a naval missile after their captains ignored several warnings, according to a statement issued by the group.

The group then announced the execution of military operations against two more ships, the MSC Alanya and MSC Palatium III, with two naval missiles. Another attack, using a drone, on the container ship Maersk Gibraltar was also announced. In the same month, media reported a missile attack on a ship flying the Norwegian flag, launched by the Houthis, which caused damage.

Faced with the recurrence of similar incidents, Maersk, one of the world's largest container shipping companies, has temporarily suspended its operations on the Red Sea. Additionally, the United States held talks with 38 allied countries in the region and beyond to establish a maritime task force to confront Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, according to Patrick Ryder, a spokesperson for the US Department of Defense.

The legitimate Yemeni government expressed its position on the Houthi naval movements. Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism, Moammar Al-Eryani, described the attack on Galaxy Leader as a 'terrorist act' with “no direct or indirect impact on Israeli occupation” but which “directly affects international trade in the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the Suez Canal, and the economies of the countries adjacent to it, including Egypt. It is also an attempt to legitimize foreign presence in the maritime straits in the region under the pretext of protecting international passages from piracy.”

In a press release, Al-Eryani stated that the Houthis’ strikes confirm the validity of his government’s warnings of the dangers of the rebel group's continued control of the coastal strip and the three ports of Hudaydah. According to Al-Eryani, the Houthis “use [the ports] as a launching pad for acts of piracy and threatening commercial ships and oil tankers in international shipping lines.”

Despite the Houthi escalation, Israeli response has remained within the scope of threats. Most recently, on December 9, 2023, head of the Israeli National Security Council, Tzachi Hanegbi, stated that Israel “will respond militarily to Houthi attacks in Yemen if no action is taken against the group.”

What prompted the Houthis to directly confront Israel, and subsequently the United States and its allies?

Internal and external issues

But what prompted the Houthis to enter into direct confrontation with Israel, subsequently confronting the United States and its allies? Karrar Al-Marani, a Yemeni journalist affiliated with the Houthis, explained to Raseef22, “The intervention of Ansar Allah (the Houthis) came in line with the realities and the need for Palestinian resistance factions to receive support. The Houthi missiles targeted several locations in Umm Al-Rashrash and others, a decision made by the group's leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people and providing support with all available means.”

Al-Marani believes that Israel and the United States have not responded militarily due to their lack of viable options. According to Al-Marani, they do not want to ignite a regional war in the area, so “they want de-escalation,” ruling out a limited military response from US warships.

Al-Marani concludes that “the response was non-military and included several measures such as halting international aid to areas under Houthi control. There was also a clear setback in negotiations with Saudi Arabia due to pressure exerted by the United States.”

Mustafa Naji, a former Yemeni diplomat and researcher and translator residing in France, tells Raseef22 that the Houthis benefited from their recent operations by “continuing to collect money from Yemenis to finance their armament, which has burdened the citizens.”

Naji explains that their actions “address their internal problems, especially since the popularity of the group was very low due to their continuous evasion of the obligations imposed by the ongoing ceasefire in the country and the popular demands related to the disbursement of salaries that had been suspended for years.”

Externally, Naji suggests, the Houthis wanted to present themselves as a force not to be underestimated, in addition to their efforts to relieve Iran and embarrass the Arab countries, for being negligent in the eyes of the public and failing to adequately support the Palestinian people.

The former diplomat does not deny the relative increase in the popularity of the Houthis in Yemen following their actions of support towards the Palestinians. Naji explains that “Yemenis, in general, have a firm position in supporting the rights of the Palestinian people. Still, no one can do anything because the overall situation in the country allows only for moral and perhaps limited material solidarity. On the other hand, I believe the Houthis are dealing with this issue as an arena for political gain and to benefit from the general emotional state.”

“The Houthis gained popularity with their intervention, blocking ships headed to Israeli ports from passing unless food and medicine were allowed to enter Gaza. This is a clear message that Yemen stands with the Palestinian people”

According to Abdulwasea Al-Fatiki, a political analyst and head of the political department of the Yemeni Renaissance Movement, “[Iran] is exploiting its claim to lead the axis of resistance as a pretext for interfering in the affairs of the Arab region and supporting its Shiite arms, which use the Palestinian issue as a pretext to overthrow Arab countries and ignite sectarian strife and civil wars.”

The so-called axis of resistance that Al-Fatiki refers to is an unofficial military-political alliance in opposition to the West and Israel, hostile to Arab countries that it accuses of dealing with the West. Al-Fatiki excludes the possibility that the appearance of the Houthis as a force within the Iranian resistance axis will lead to expanding the war regionally. He explains to Raseef22, “Iran and its allies in the region have set their position since day one of the Gaza events, stating that they have no connection to any regional files.”

“Although life has become difficult in Sana'a due to rising prices, it is necessary to support the Palestinian people,” Ahmed Amer, 35, a foodstuff merchant at the Dhahban market in Sana'a, tells Raseef22. Amer described the Houthis' intervention as a brave act, especially in comparison to the silence, cowardice and abandonment from the Arab countries.

In a conversation with Raseef22, Amer expressed that “the Houthis gained popularity with this intervention, imposing the equation of siege for siege, preventing ships heading to Israeli occupation ports from passing through the Arabian and Red Seas unless the food and medicine that Gaza needs is allowed to enter. This is a clear message to everyone that Yemen stands alongside the Palestinian people.”

He is one of many Yemenis who has donated in support of the Palestinian resistance through the Central Bank in Sana’a, which is controlled by the Houthis. “I supported the Palestinian resistance as much as I could, and I am prepared to provide more, because the Palestinian cause is the Arab cause,” Amer confessed.

According to Amer, exchange rates in Houthi-controlled areas are stable, despite the paper currency crisis. This is due to a decision by the Houthi group “obligating banks and exchange companies to fix the exchange rate.” However, he does not deny the significant increase in prices of services and imported goods.


Implications

Military and strategic affairs specialist Ali Al-Dahab expresses concerns that the Houthi attacks on Israel may have deep effects on the livelihood of Yemenis. He explains to Raseef22, “These effects are not yet significantly visible, but if measures and procedures related to the flow of ships to the ports are taken, or if maritime shipping companies resort to doubling shipping prices due to the risks faced by ships, the effects will undoubtedly be felt.”

“A large commercial ship has been hijacked and is still with the Houthis, exposed to danger. Insurance premiums will increase, and consequently, there will be reluctance to enter Yemeni ports in the Red Sea, especially those under Houthi control. This affects the prices of goods if these ships risked entering after increasing shipping fees and insurance premiums.”

Al-Dahab expects what he labels an “economic gap” resulting from ship owners' reluctance to take risks, unloading their cargoes in neighboring countries such as Oman for land transportation or unloading them in the ports of Aden, under government control.

“In addition, economic activity, trade, customs and tax revenues, workers' incomes will decrease in the ports within Houthi-controlled areas,” adds Al-Dahab.

Militarily, Al-Dahab anticipates violent responses that may escalate the current situation, turning Yemen into a sort of battlefield, a concern considering the other party consists of the United States, Israel, and Britain.

“Although life in Sana’a is difficult due to rising prices, it's necessary to support the Palestinian people” - Ahmed, a Yemeni merchant, considers the Houthi intervention a brave act in comparison to the silence of other Arab countries and abandonment of Palestine

According to Al-Dahab, Israeli and Western powers “do not want to ignite war and escalate the conflict, especially since their interests in the Red Sea may be threatened. This could be an entry point or a door to broad military movements that do not stop at the Houthis alone but extend beyond them to armed groups present in the Horn of Africa, which may have connections with the Houthis.”

In any case, observers expect the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden will be militarized in the coming stages by the United States and its allies, through an increase in the number of warships, especially in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

Some anticipate pressure on the Yemeni government to agree to a foreign military presence on Yemeni islands in the Red Sea, such as the islands of Kamaran, Mayun, Zuqar, Jabal al-Tair, or Hanish.

This is based on the 2021 events in Ghaydah, a city in Al Mahrah Governorate in eastern Yemen. On July 30, 2021, a drone targeted the Mercer Street tanker off the coast of Oman. The tanker, which was en route to the UAE from Tanzania, was operated by Zodiac Maritime, the company owned by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer. The attack resulted in the death of two individuals, British security guard Adrian Underwood, and the ship's captain who holds Romanian nationality.

On August 8, 2021, Britain sent special forces to Ghaydah Airport, aiming to pursue mercenaries affiliated with the Houthi group believed to be responsible for the attack on the tanker.

The outlet British Express reported that a group of 40 commandos, including a unit for electronic warfare tasked with monitoring communications, were part of a mission to track down the perpetrators of the attack.

For years, this British presence has taken various forms, making eastern Yemen, Al Mahrah, its base. This confirms the warnings of the Peaceful Sit-in Committee in Al Mahra, which warns against the transformation of the governorate into a gathering place for foreign forces, especially with the continued influx of these forces.

Peace path

Since Operation Al-Aqsa Storm and the beginning of the Israeli aggression on Gaza, peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have stalled. This comes amid threats from the latter to relaunch attacks on Saudi territory, in addition to accusations by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a member of the Supreme Yemeni Political Council, that Saudi Arabia had prevented a number of Yemeni missiles and drones from reaching their targets in occupied Palestine. This situation indicates that the relationship between the two parties is rapidly deteriorating.

Given that this could escalate the conflict in the region, which is currently seeking de-escalation, political specialists anticipate that the United States will exert pressure on Saudi Arabia to reach a long-lasting ceasefire with Yemen. This would involve agreements between the legitimate Yemeni government and the Houthis in humanitarian and economic fields, to prevent the Houthis from threatening maritime navigation. It is expected that the Houthis could have new conditions, given they consider themselves in a stronger position than before.

Mazen Fares, a writer and journalist, believes that the Houthi group's attacks “revealed to the world that they are a real threat and tend more towards violence than peace.” He points out that Yemenis should “not be obedient tools in the hands of war merchants and avoid sending their sons to the front lines, in addition to focusing on internal development projects.”

Abdulrahman Mahyoub, 52, from Houban, could previously easily travel from his residence to the center of Taiz, where he is treated for cancer at the Amal Center. The journey used to take him no more than ten minutes, but due to the war and siege of the city, thi trip now takes at least eight hours.

Mahyoub tells Raseef22 of his dissatisfaction, “Before the war, I could travel to the treatment center at minimal costs. But the Houthis closed the ports, and we have started traveling through roads which costs us 20,000 riyals for one trip, in addition to all the difficulties of the road, living conditions, and accommodation during the treatment.”

Mahoub continues, “The Houthis are trying to exploit the Gaza issue and its war against Israel, to erase their record of crimes committed against civilians in Taiz and some Yemeni cities, including indiscriminate shelling, direct sniping, and planting mines that continue to claim lives.”

He adds, “eight years ago, the Houthis closed several outlets in Taiz, including Al-Qasr Round street, Klaba area, the Sala crossing, Ghurab crossing, and the Hadhran line. Today, they target maritime ships, justifying it by the fact that Gaza is under siege. This is a contradiction, as the Houthis have rejected all initiatives for opening a crossing for patients and civilians.”

Mahyoub warns of repercussions to the Houthis’ actions, fearing the United States and Israel could bomb Yemen in retaliation, “as they do with attacks from Iraqi factions or Hezbollah in Lebanon.” He also expressed concerns over potential decisions to stop aid and relief programs by external organizations.



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