Nachricht | Gulf States - Israel - Palestine / Jordan - War in Israel/Palestine The Houthis in the Palestinian Conflict

Oliver Wils on the ideology, motivation, and strategy behind recent Houthi attacks



Oliver Wils, Katja Hermann,

Ein Jemenit, der auf einem Boot sitzt, filmt mit einem Mobiltelefon das Frachtschiff Galaxy Leader, das von den Houthis vor dem Hafen von Al-Salif am Roten Meer in der Provinz Hodeidah, Jemen, am 19. November 2023 beschlagnahmt wurde.
Das Frachtschiff Galaxy Leader wurde am 19. November 2023 im Roten Meer von den Huthis als Vergeltung für die israelischen Luftangriffe auf den Gazastreifen beschlagnahmt und in die Nähe des jemenitischen Hafens Al-Salif umgeleitet, wie die Huthis mitteilten. Hafen von Al-Salif am Roten Meer in der Provinz Hodeidah, Jemen, 5.12.2023, picture alliance / EPA | YAHYA ARHAB

Since 7 October 2023, there have been repeated drone and missile attacks on Israel by the Yemeni Houthi movement. The Galaxy Leaders, a ship with links to Israel, was highjacked in the Bab al-Mandab Yemeni Straight, along with other ships. The Houthis have repeatedly expressed their solidarity with the Palestinian cause and draw links between it and their own.

Dr. Oliver Wils is Head of the MENA Department at the Berghof Foundation. He has worked on Yemen since 2012 and conducts dialogue workshops between Yemeni politicians and Gulf actors with the support of the German Federal Foreign Office and the Swedish Foreign Ministry.

What do the Houthis hope to achieve with these attacks, and how far will they go? The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Katja Hermann spoke to Dr. Oliver Wils about the Houthi movement, their view on Israel and Palestine, and the extent to which Houthi involvement in the war indicates it becoming a regional conflict.

What are the discussions about the Palestinian issue like in Yemen, especially among the Houthis?

There’s a long tradition of solidarity with Palestine in Yemeni society. Both before and after the reunification in 1990, the Yemeni governments generally took a pro-Palestine stance. In this respect, it is not surprising that Ansar Allah — as the Houthi movement is officially known — used this primarily emotional connection for its own mobilization early on. The movement’s political slogan not only invokes death to America and Israel but also the condemnation of Jews. Since the Israel-Palestine conflict is geographically, culturally, and politically very distant — it’s more than 2000 kilometres away — popular resentments are being deliberately exploited for their own cause.

The Houthi movement consists not only of traditionalist groups that align themselves with the centuries-old pre-republican Imamate and the dominant position of the Hashemite families but also includes revolutionary forces and an ideological Islamist core. The latter two groups in particular view the Palestinian conflict as both a religious conflict and as part of a regional resistance against Israel and, therefore, the US.

The Houthi movement is firing missiles and drones towards Israel and has attacked several ships since 7 October. How can these activities and this new front be explained given that the Houthi movement is itself engaged in a gruelling war?

The Houthi movement is a relatively new force. Originally initiated in the 1990s as a reaction by Zaidis — a moderate Shiite group in the north of Yemen, which makes up around 40 percent of the total Yemeni population — to their perceived political and cultural exclusion, Ansar Allah formed a powerful resistance movement between 2004 and 2010 during armed conflicts with the regime of then Yemeni ruler Ali Abdallah Al-Saleh. After a failed attempt to address the country’s problems through negotiations and national dialogue, the Houthis joined forces with the since-deposed ruler Al-Saleh in 2015 and they gained military control over large parts of the north during the ensuing Yemeni war, which also involved Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Over the course of the war, the Houthi movement has significantly advanced techniques of asymmetric warfare with the weapons systems at its disposal. These techniques were almost certainly developed with guidance from experts from Lebanon and Iraq. As a result, the Houthis have repeatedly demonstrated that their missile and drone systems can accurately strike targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Additionally, the Houthis have long threatened that they also have the military means and the political determination to escalate the situation further by bringing the internationally significant maritime route in the Bab Al-Mandab strait into the Yemen conflict.

To summarize, one can say that neither the utilized weapons technology nor the fact that the Houthis are now targeting international ships is truly surprising. However, the timing of the escalation is interesting, as signs seem to suggest that the Yemen war has been pointing towards a policy of de-escalation after months of bilateral negotiations between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, a six-month ceasefire was agreed upon in April 2022 and is still in force today despite it officially having expired over a year ago. Perhaps one key to answering why the escalation is taking place right now lies in the increasing dissatisfaction of many Yemenis and many Houthi supporters and sympathizers feel about the long running situation of no war, no peace. Escalation of conflict in the region offers Houthi leadership an opportunity to demonstrate, even to critics within its own ranks, its political commitment and ability to act and to put a stop to the increasingly vocal internal demands for regular salary payments and improved services.

At the same time, however, attacking Israel also conveys a dual message. On the one hand, it’s telling Saudi Arabia, “Take us seriously! Don’t mess with us!” And on the other hand, it’s telling Iran, “We may be negotiating with Saudi Arabia, but we are still part of the axis of resistance”.

What are the Houthis’ motives for hijacking a ship that seems to have only a tenuous connection to Israel? Was this a mistake?

We cannot completely rule out that the hijacking of the Galaxy Leaders was based on incomplete information, of course. But I believe that the hijacking of the ship successfully served its purpose. There is a connection to an Israeli shareholder, but at the same time it is not formally an “Israeli” ship. This makes it easier for all sides to negotiate over the ship and facilitate a compromise that saves face for everyone.

It also fits in with the overall picture, which in my opinion speaks to a controlled escalation. The rockets that were launched were relatively well intercepted. There are also unconfirmed reports that the targets were informed immediately before the rockets were fired.

What role does Iran play in the Houthis’ current militant action against Israel?

It is difficult to say whether Iran plays a direct role. On the one hand, it fits into the picture. As the leading power in the Axis of Resistance, Iran feels compelled to react to the war in Gaza. At the same time, there seems to be no interest in a regional escalation at the moment, as the hitherto limited escalation on the Israeli Lebanese border demonstrates.

However, the actions of the Houthis are likely to be in Iran’s interests. On the other hand, the Houthis have repeatedly signalled that they can act independently of Iran. It is quite possible that the Houthis are acting on the basis of their own ideology and, as previously mentioned, for domestic political reasons.

To what extent does firing rockets at Israel and the recent hijacking of this ship mean taking sides with Hamas? Or to put it another way: What is the Houthi movement’s position on Hamas?

From a Houthi perspective, Hamas is a legitimate national and religious resistance movement. Both organizations consider themselves part of the Axis of Resistance. And it is therefore obvious that Ansar Allah supports Hamas politically and militarily. However, their relationship with Hamas is certainly not an easy one. In Yemen, the Houthi movement is fighting the Al-Islah (The Yemeni Congregation for Reform), which is at least in part close to the regional Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot.

The Houthis have been in negotiations with Saudi Arabia to end the war for some time, and the negotiated ceasefire has now been in place for around a year and a half. To what extent do their actions against Israel weaken their position vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia?

The Houthis are obviously playing a dangerous game. Aside from the shelling of Eilat and the Negev, their escalation on international maritime routes is viewed very critically by Saudi Arabia and the United States. The United States is again considering the reclassification of the Houthis as a terrorist organization.

In this respect, the Houthis’ actions could undermine the intensive negotiation efforts they have made with Saudi Arabia over the past year. While it appears that Saudi Arabia and the Houthis resolved their fundamental issues for some time, Saudi Arabia is probably finding it difficult to defy the US and announce any negotiated solution that would grant the Houthis legitimacy.

However, options to persuade an organization like the Houthis to relent through listings or other sanctions are very limited. Additionally, a targeted military intervention by the United States or Israel might be counterproductive and could even contribute further to the organization’s increasing popularity in the region. Sooner or later, therefore, people might realize that a negotiated solution with the Houthis, which would grant the organization a range of financial and legitimizing concessions, is the best strategy for stabilizing both the country and the region.

Translated by Eve Richens and Shane Anderson for Gegensatz Translation Collective.