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Who are the ‘Houthi’ rebels in Yemen and why do they hate Israel?

The rebel group has been attacking Israel since Oct. 7

Newly recruited fighters who joined a Houthi military force intended to be sent to fight in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, march during a parade in Sanaa, Yemen December 2, 2023. (Photo: REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)

Among Israel’s many enemies that have been attacking it since Hamas launched its murderous assault on October 7, the Yemeni group known as the ‘Houthis’ may have been the most surprising.

Formerly known only to aspiring Middle East experts and foreign policy wonks, they have been grabbing headlines with their numerous missile and drone attacks against Israel, and more recently, international ships traversing the Bab al-Mandab straits.

So, who are these people and why do they hate Israel and declare solidarity with its enemies while being some 1,700 km (1,000 miles) away?

The Houthi movement, or as they call themselves, Ansar Allah (God’s helpers), is a political and religious group centered around the Houthi clan.

In 2004, the Houthis began an insurgency in northern Yemen against the government under President Ali Abdallah al-Saleh, slowly gaining territory and conquering the capital of Sana’a in 2014.

In 2015, Sunni countries in the region with the assistance of the U.S., mainly Saudi Arabia along with Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, launched an intervention into what became a horrific civil war with tens of thousands of victims on both sides.

Today, Yemen is split between a northwestern area around Sana’a that is controlled by the Houthis and contains the majority of the population, and a bigger eastern portion of the country controlled by the internationally recognized government.

The hate for Israel stems from religious and political motivations. The Houthis’ famous slogan goes: “God Is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.”

This goes back to before the insurgency and is inspired by a similar slogan used in revolutionary Iran.

The Houthi movement is mainly made up of Shi’ite Muslims, who make up around 35% of the population.

The dominant branch of Yemeni Shi’ism is called Zaydism, making them different from the Twelver Shi’ism practiced by most Shi’ites in the world, including in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

This made the Houthis ideal partners for the Iranian regime, which has incorporated most Shi’ite populations in the Middle East into its “Axis of Resistance” against Israel and the West.

The axis includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shi’ite militias in Syria and Iraq, as well as the Sunni Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups.

Therefore, despite Houthi and Iranian claims to the contrary, Iran and its main proxy Hezbollah, have become important patrons and allies of the Houthis, providing training, financial support and arms.

“Iran supports the rightful struggles of [the Houthis] in Yemen and considers this movement as part of the successful Islamic awakening movements,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei, said in October 2014.

Over the years, through Iranian arms shipments and the looting of Western military equipment from Saudi Arabia, the Houthi armed forces have developed into a serious threat, especially regarding ballistic missiles and drones.

So, after using the Houthis as a thorn in the side of its regional rival Saudi Arabia, it is reasonable to assume Iranian influence is behind the Houthi declaration of war against Israel as well.

The Houthis don’t just gain international notoriety and prestige from their bold action, which has prompted an international coalition to form in order to defend the Red Sea shipping lanes.

They are also shaming their enemy Saudi Arabia in the eyes of the Arab street which, as a rule, hates Israel, as at least one of their missile salvos fired at southern Israel was intercepted by Saudi aerial defense systems.

This, in the eyes of the Houthis and many in the Arab world, makes the Saudi Kingdom an ally of Israel and complicit in the war against Palestinians.

For now, the Houthis stand only to gain from their participation in the war against Israel but whether this will stay true after the U.S.-led coalition takes serious action against it – or when Israel retaliates in Yemen – remains to be seen.

Hanan Lischinsky has a Master’s degree in Middle East & Israel studies from Heidelberg University in Germany, where he spent part of his childhood and youth. He finished High School in Jerusalem and served in the IDF’s Intelligence Corps. Hanan and his wife live near Jerusalem, and he joined ALL ISRAEL NEWS in August 2023.

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