A ballistic missile fired by the Houthis towards Israel, according to the group’s media, November 1, 2023 (clip: South24 Center)

The Houthis’ Role in the Hamas-Israel Conflict


Wed, 01-11-2023 06:56 PM, Aden

Despite the recent rounds of attacks against Israel, the Houthis are not interested in directly participating in the conflict. Their attacks are also mostly symbolic and not a serious security threat for Israel.

Dr. Marta Furlan (South24)

Three days after the inception of the Hamas-Israel conflict following the former’s surprise and unprecedented attack, the leader of the Houthi movement, Abdulmalik Al-Houthi, warned that his group is ready to engage in the hostilities together with Iranian allies in the region and that it would respond to any American intervention in Gaza with drones and missiles.

On October 19, the USS Carney, a US Navy guided-missile destroyer in the northern Red Sea, shot down four missiles and multiple drones allegedly fired from Houthi-controlled Yemen. Saudi Arabia reportedly intercepted a fifth missile. According to the Pentagon, the missiles and drones were potentially directed towards targets in Israel. The American destroyer and its crew reported no damages and the Houthis didn’t claimed the attack.

Following that first episode, on October 27 drones caused explosions in the Egyptian Red Sea towns of Taba and Nuweiba, which are located near the Israeli border and in periods of peace are a typical holiday destination for Israelis. In response, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the Iran-backed Houthis launched drones and missiles “with the intention of harming Israel”.

On a third such instance, on October 31 a missile was launched by the Houthis towards Eilat, in southern Israel.  The incident triggered air raid sirens in the city, forcing residents to seek refuge in the shelters. The Israeli military reported using the “Arrow” aerial defence system to intercept a surface-to-surface missile in the Red Sea fired towards its territory.

Following the episode, Yahya Sarea, a spokesperson for the Houthi’s military, said that the Houthis launched a large batch of missiles and drones at various targets in Israel. He added that the operation was the third targeting Israel and threatened to carry out more qualitative strikes with missiles and drones “until the Israeli aggression on Gaza stops.” On November 1, new missile interceptions in the skies over Eilat suggested that the Houthis would keep true to their threat.

To understand the attacks launched by the Houthis against Israel, one needs to contextualize them in the movement’s relationship with Iran and the movement’s position within the Iran-led Axis of Resistance.

A look into Houthi-Iran relations

While the relationship between Iran and the Houthis dates back to 2009, it was in 2015 that Iran started to look at Yemen with great(er) interest. In fact, as the Houthis conquered Sana’a (September 2014) and the Saudis were getting increasingly worried about developments in Yemen to the point of intervening militarily (March 2015), Iran came to appreciate the opportunity to support the Houthis, indirectly pressure and threaten Saudi Arabia, and expand Iranian influence into the Red Sea – a maritime area of immense strategic significance.

As part of its support, Iran has been transferring to the Houthis weapons and weapons parts, and has been providing them with military training, mostly through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and Hezbollah. The Houthi-Hezbollah ties, in particular, have become prominent over the years, as the two movements increasingly cooperate in weapons smuggling and Hezbollah-linked advisors have contributed to the Houthis’ military prowess. Hezbollah’s TV station al-Manar also provides technical assistance to the Houthis’ TV channel al-Masirah, aptly headquartered in Beirut. 

The support from Iran also allowed the Houthis to acquire the know-how necessary to build their own weapons factories and manufacture weapons inside Yemen. Thanks to Iran’s support, over the past eight years the Houthis have significantly enhanced their military arsenal and bolstered their fighting capabilities, as was most evident in the recent missiles and drone attacks against Israel.

As the partnership between Tehran and the Houthis consolidated, the Yemeni group carved out a role for itself in the Iran-led Axis of Resistance, which brings together a series of Iran-affiliated armed factions and governments across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and beyond. To be certain, however, the Houthis are more an Iranian ally than an Iranian proxy. The group, in fact, has been using the ties with Iran to advance its own interests and there is no evidence that the Houthis take orders from Tehran or that their policies are dramatically shaped by Iran. 

As such, the Houthis differentiate themselves from a group such as Hezbollah in their relations with Iran. Nonetheless, the Houthis’ presence within the Axis of Resistance is not a merely symbolic affiliation and the Yemeni group certainly values and defends its positions within this system.

Rationale for the Houthis attacks

A few reasons lie behind the Houthis’ recent wave of attacks, each of which has its own significance.

First, the Houthis are trying to reinforce their affiliation to the Axis of Resistance. As Hamas initiated the confrontation against Israel and Tehran is mobilizing its other regional allies to take part in the hostility to some extent, the Houthis are certainly interested in confirming their agency and relevance within the Axis. While the Houthis, as noted above, are not an Iranian proxy such as Hezbollah or other armed factions are, the current Hamas-Israel conflict is an opportune moment for the Houthis to confirm and consolidate their belonging to the Axis within the regional landscape – with all the advantages that this implies in terms of material support coming from Iran.

Second, the attacks aim to increase the Houthi’s leverage in the talks with Saudi Arabia, which have been going on for some time now but have been unable to produce any definitive outcome. Considering the Saudi’s determination to put an end to their disastrous Yemeni adventure and rather focus on the many investment projects connected to Vision 2030 – which aim to turn Saudi Arabia in a major tourist destination and to improve the Kingdom’s international image – the Houthis’ attacks serve to increase the group’s leverage in the negotiation process.
Third, the group is using the attacks to enhance its position at the domestic level. Within northern Yemen, in fact, the Houthis have been facing increasing popular discontent, driven by a deep and protracted economic crisis, a constant rise in the price of basic commodities, and a local currency whose value against the dollar continues to drop. To make things worse, public salaries in Houthi-controlled territories haven’t been paid regularly since 2016. The brutality with which the Houthi repress any attempt at protesting their rule and the capillary penetration of their security services within society are often regarded as the only sources of the group’s capacity to remain in power.

In this context of wide discontent, the attacks against Israel become for the Houthis an instrument to gain some domestic support. In fact, just as in the rest of the Muslim world, support for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause in Yemen is strong, which was well evident in the pro-Palestine demonstrations taking place across Yemen, including Taiz, Sanaa, Aden, Hadramout, Marib, Saada, Ibb, Al-Hudaydah, and Almahra. 

By presenting themselves as the (only) Yemeni political and military actor with the capacity and determination to launch attacks against Israel, the Houthis are likely to garner support, or at least sympathy, among many. Considering that the Houthis’ own slogan calls to curse the Jews and invokes death on Israel (and America), it becomes apparent the need for the group to live up to their own “scream” (al-shi’ar) if they want to retain credibility. 

Despite the recent rounds of attacks against Israel, the Houthis are not interested in directly participating in the conflict. Their attacks are also mostly symbolic and not a serious security threat for Israel. Nonetheless, the Houthis’ military actions – which promise to continue as long as the war in Gaza goes on – say a lot about the capacity of Iran and its allies to attack Israel from multiple directions and force the Jewish state to divert its attention to multiple fronts.

Dr. Marta Furlan

Research Program Officer at Free the Slaves (FTS), a non-governmental organization working to end human trafficking and modern slavery. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Orion Policy Institute (OPI) and a Fellow at the Center on Armed Groups. (@MFurlanBuck)