Israel can’t ignore the Houthis in Yemen – opinion

Israel can’t ignore the Houthis in Yemen - opinion

The Gaza conflict introduced a novel challenge to Israel as it faced a previously dormant front in the Southeast for the first time. Commencing in mid-October, the Ansar Allah organization (commonly known as the Houthis) from Yemen initiated the launch of cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and UAVs toward Israel. Israel successfully intercepted these projectiles, with occasional assistance from an American warship in the Red Sea and support from Saudi Arabia.

On November 19, Ansar Allah announced the seizure of a cargo vessel belonging to a British company (operated by a Japanese company) in the Red Sea. The ship, carrying approximately 25 crew members of diverse nationalities, was purportedly chartered by an Israeli entrepreneur.

These attacks, coupled with the belligerent statements from high-ranking members of the Houthi terrorist organization, signaling their commitment to ongoing operations against Israel – including an official declaration of war against Israel – seem to foreshadow forthcoming assaults on both Israel and American interests within the Red Sea region.

How to prepare against the adversary

To effectively prepare against an adversary, it is crucial to assess two primary factors: intention and capability. 

It is evident that the Houthi faction in Yemen currently possesses the intention to engage in hostilities, as illustrated by their involvement in the Gaza conflict. Although they have primarily engaged in conflicts with Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries in recent years, their ultimate objective remains unmistakable: the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people. This intention is underscored by the presence of slogans on the Houthi movement’s flag, such as “Allah Akbar, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, victory to Islam.”

Regarding their capabilities, the Houthis possess highly advanced military equipment, yet their range of influence falls short of posing a substantial and immediate threat to Israel – primarily extending to the Eilat region. Over recent years, Iran has supplied the Houthis with an abundance of weaponry and missiles, with reports in the media suggesting the establishment of a production facility for missiles, drones, and other advanced armaments on Yemenite territory.

Among the weaponry in the Houthis’ possession are ballistic missiles such as the Quds 2 and Quds 3, with effective ranges spanning from 1,300 to 2,000 km. These missiles hold the capability to reach targets in Israel, which lies 1,600 km. away from Yemen. Furthermore, the Houthis maintain a significant inventory of unmanned aerial vehicles suitable for operation within the State of Israel’s range. This includes the Sammad-3, operational at a range of 1,500 to 2,000 km., the Sammad-4 drone, with a range exceeding 2,000 km., and the Waeid UAV, which spans distances from 2,000 to 2,200 km.

What should Israel’s plan of action be?

ISRAEL SHOULD launch an attack against the Houthis

In response to a series of attacks by the Houthis, the IDF opted to strengthen its presence in the Red Sea region by deploying Navy missile ships as part of its defensive strategy. However, Israel has refrained from a military response to the developments in Yemen thus far. On November 1, Defense Minister Yoav Galant acknowledged the Yemeni threat, affirming that “we have the information and will take the necessary actions.” Similarly, on the same day, the IDF spokesperson addressed the issue of the Houthis, stating, “We possess the capability to respond decisively to any security threat against the State of Israel, wherever and whenever it is required.”

Israel should not disregard the Houthis’ threat from Yemen, especially in the wake of the events on October 7, 2023. It is essential to recognize that Ansar Allah’s threat cannot be underestimated. Israel cannot expect the Houthi terrorist organization to cease its attacks without a response. Their attacks, initiated under the pretext of supporting Hamas in the Gaza conflict, may require Israel’s ongoing attention in the southeastern arena. Taking preemptive military action against the Houthis, while their strength remains relatively limited, is advisable to prevent their future strengthening.

Hence, Israel should take immediate action against the Houthis in Yemen. 

It’s reasonable to assume that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations may be reluctant to join a regional coalition against the Houthis, given the recent year’s relative ceasefire, albeit unofficial and imperfect, between them and Yemen. This ceasefire is part of the broader normalization efforts between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, there’s a likelihood that the United States will decline to participate in an Israeli attack, out of fear that such an action might lead the Houthis to perceive it as a move by the US to terminate the ceasefire, potentially straining their relationships with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, who are American allies.

This likely implies that Israel will have to take unilateral action against the Houthis. Currently, Israel’s focus and resources are heavily committed to the conflict in Gaza, making it doubtful whether it possesses the military and political capacity to effectively confront the Houthis. 

The military defeat of the Houthi terrorist organization, like any terrorist group, necessitates ground operation, which may not be within Israel’s capabilities. Therefore, Israel should adopt a deterrence strategy aimed at diminishing the Houthis’ military capabilities, preventing the acquisition of advanced weaponry, and impeding the development and enhancement of their existing capabilities. The key message to convey is that the “cost” of launching attacks against Israel outweighs any potential benefits.

ISRAEL HAS various options for launching a robust offensive against the Houthis. By gathering intelligence and objectives through cooperation with the US and the Gulf states, Israel can mount an integrated attack, employing UAVs, fighter jets, missile launches, and UAVs from ships in the Red Sea region, along with precise surface-to-surface missile strikes from Israeli territory. Additionally, strategic cyberattacks on vital Houthi infrastructure, such as disrupting and disabling operations at the Hodeidah port under Houthi control, are also viable options.

The military implications

From a military perspective, a decisive strike of this magnitude would inflict substantial and serious damage on the Houthis, reverberating the strength of Israeli deterrence throughout the region. In the political and geopolitical realm, this presents an opportunity for Israel to once again demonstrate itself as a strategic asset to the US, beyond the perception of being merely a partner that receives ongoing economic and security support – a perception that some circles in the United States might view as burdensome. Israel can leverage such an attack to bolster its position concerning Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, particularly given the ongoing tensions in the region, exacerbated by the Gaza conflict.

In light of the shift in Israel’s political and military approach concerning the Gaza Strip, a similar change should be applied to addressing threats from other regions. Israel must recognize that, especially following the severe damage to its deterrence caused by the October 7 attack by Hamas, safeguarding its citizens’ security requires a more assertive stance against threats. 

This may entail deploying greater military force than it has traditionally employed in recent decades. Restoring deterrence and projecting a strong image for Israel cannot be achieved through mere containment.

The writer has a PhD in political studies. He is a military strategy and national security expert, and a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and the Israel Defense and Security Forum (Habithonistim).

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