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The Houthis and the threat to Israel

Dr. Uzi Rubin from the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Bar-Ilan, explains how the threat to the State of Israel was born from the direction of Yemen

The Houthi threat to Israel and to sailing in the Red Sea. Illustration:
The Houthi threat to Israel and to sailing in the Red Sea. Illustration:

Dr. Uzi Rubin, Researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, and at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and the former head of the Wall Directorate, which is responsible for active defense projects against ballistic missiles and rockets, explains who the Houthis are and what the historical roots of the current threat they pose in the Middle East.

In the War of Iron Swords, a new threat to Israel from the so-called "Houthis" in Yemen materialized for the first time. The Houthi movement is an extreme Shiite Islamist movement that seized power in the mountainous part of Yemen in 2015 when it took control of the capital Sana'a and declared itself the legal government of the entire country. The movement named after its founder Hussein al-Houthi advocates Shiite Islam and its slogan: "Death to America, death to Israel, contempt for the Jews, victory for Islam." Like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the movement is made up of a civilian arm that deals with politics and helping the poor, and a military arm that is now a regular army for all intents and purposes.

The Shia ruled Yemen for nearly a thousand years, until it was ousted in a coup in 1962 that brought Sunni nationalist elements to power. The seizure of power in Sana'a by the Houthis was actually a counter-revolution that returned power to the Shiites of Yemen, who make up a majority of 65% of the population of the country's mountainous north.

Since its foundation in 2004, the Houthi movement has received significant Iranian aid in money and weapons. After taking control of most of mountainous Yemen, a coalition of Sunni Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was formed which launched a military campaign to restore the previous Sunni government to power. The military campaign that began in 2015 continued until a temporary ceasefire was reached in April 2022. During this war, Iran poured in money, and huge amounts of personal weapons, ammunition, missiles and drones despite the embargo imposed by the UN Security Council. Also, the Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese Hezbollah trained the Houthi army.

The Iranians also used the war as a combat laboratory to test the effectiveness of their own weapons. In order not to openly violate the arms embargo on Houthi Yemen, they invested efforts to change the drones and missiles they transferred to them in such a way that their external shape would be different from those used by the Iranians themselves. These efforts were sometimes very superficial - such as painting the exterior of ballistic missiles in a different color than the missiles in Iran's service - and sometimes very thorough, such as the dedicated planning of drones and cruise missiles for the Houthis. For example, the "Quds 1" cruise missile first seen at an exhibition in Sana'a in 2019 was presented as a local Houthi development, but there is clear evidence that it was developed in Iran. The Iranians, for their part, have been careful for many years not to present it in their parades and exhibitions in order to preserve the fiction that Iran does not supply weapons to the Houthis and that they produce them themselves.

During the seven years of the war, the Houthis conducted a significant missile attack against Saudi Arabia that included shooting drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. Most of the attacks were on population centers, military bases and infrastructure facilities in the Saudi provinces bordering Yemen, but the Houthis did not hesitate to attack the Saudi rear. The capital city of Riyadh was attacked at least 8 times with both ballistic and cruise missiles. Also, the infrastructure of the Saudi oil industries deep in the country was attacked, including oil terminals in the port of Jeddah, the oil pipeline that connects the oil fields in the north of the country to the oil ports in the south, and the oil field in Sheiba (Shaiba) in the east of the kingdom. The United Arab Emirates has also been attacked several times with UAVs and ballistic missiles. In the Houthi attack in January 2022, their missiles hit the suburbs of Abu Dhabi and caused several casualties there. According to the spokesman of the Saudi army in December 2021, from the beginning of the war until that date, 851 anti-aircraft missiles and cruise missiles were fired at Saudi Arabia, as well as 430 ballistic missiles, which caused the death of 59 Saudi citizens.

The maximum range to which the Houthi drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles were fired during the war against Saudi Arabia was about 1200 km. The end of the war with Saudi Arabia and its allies left the Houthi regime with an arsenal of drones, cruise missiles and long-range ballistic missiles, but those whose range was not sufficient at the time to reach the southernmost point in Israel, which is almost 1700 km from the northernmost point of Yemen 'Yet.

It was clear to some observers in Israel during the war against Saudi Arabia that after it ended, the Houthis would turn their weapons on Israel. An explicit warning of this was given in a video clip distributed by the Houthis in 2019, which showed launches of the newly unveiled cruise missile ("Quds 1") with Hebrew subtitles ending with the words "and much more to come". It was already clear then that the range gap could be closed by extending the range of cruise missiles and UAVs and by using heavier ballistic missiles.

In September 2023, less than a month before the outbreak of the Iron Swords War, the Houthis presented two new missiles in a parade held in Sana'a: the "Quds 4" cruise missile, which was described as a new long-range missile, and a liquid ballistic missile called "Tofan", which appears to be the twin of the long-range model of the The Iranian Shihab 3, a model that can reach a range of more than 1,900 km. Since the Houthis did not need a missile range greater than 1,200 km to threaten Saudi Arabia, it was clear that the two new missiles were intended to hit Israel. Indeed, on October 19.10.2023, XNUMX, for the first time, Houthi drones and cruise missiles were launched towards Israel, which were intercepted by American Navy ships in the Red Sea. 

On 27.10 unmanned aircraft from Yemen arrived in the Gulf of Eilat for the first time, some of which hit the shores of Sinai and some of which were intercepted by the Air Force. Also in the following days, ballistic missiles were fired at Eilat, which were intercepted by the "Hatz" system. It seems that Israel's air defense system was prepared ahead of time to anticipate Houthi missile attacks on Israel, which is why they have been thwarted so far. On the other hand, it is likely that the Houthis, with the help of their Iranian patrons, will make efforts to further extend the ranges of their missiles, improve the results, and penetrate through the defense arrays of the American Navy in the Red Sea and the Israeli HNA array, and possibly Saudi Arabia's as well. On October 31.10.2023, XNUMX, the Houthi regime officially declared a state of war with Israel. Therefore, it is likely that he will not stop his efforts to attack Israel, both to demonstrate his support for Hamas and to divert resources of the Israeli defense system towards the south in order to Deteriorate Israel's defense capacity against Hamas and Hezbollah. As for the more distant future, even after the end of the "Iron Swords" war, the air defense will have to be permanently prepared to deal with the threat from the south, a threat that until recently was quite vague but has now become tangible, visible and quite dangerous.