Yemen's Houthi rebel leader Abdul Malek al-Houthi has made Saudi Arabia an offer to swap a Saudi military pilot and four other prisoners of war held by the Zaidi-Shia movement, in exchange for Palestinians detained in the kingdom for allegedly supporting Hamas, Al Jazeera reported late Saturday night.
According to Al Jazeera, al-Houthi said his offer was made because of the Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement's solidarity with the Palestinian people against those who "conspire against its legitimate cause." Saudi Arabia has put dozens of Palestinians on trial for alleged ties to the terrorist organization ruling the Gaza Strip.
According to a statement by Amnesty International, Saudi authorities launched a crackdown on Palestinians, detaining some 68 Palestinians visiting or residing in the kingdom, "including students, academics and business men." One of those detained, Dr. Mohammed al-Kudari, was Hamas' official representative in Saudi Arabia.
The Palestinian and Jordanian nationals, said the NGO, may have been "subjected to enforced disappearance, held in solitary confinement and detained incommunicado." The detainees are currently facing the kingdom's "special terrorism court" in Riyadh, beginning on Sunday. According to the NGO, the detained Palestinians have been held in detention without charge or trial and have no access to legal representation.
"The detainees are well known in Saudi Arabia and have been living there for decades and have never once tried to undermine the Saudi security. Therefore we find it very unusual for the Saudi government to consider them as terrorists," Gaza-based Hamas spokesman Basem Naim told Al Jazeera.
Political analyst Hussain al-Bukhaiti, who is close to the rebels, told Al Jazeera the initiative was "genuine and is not a show-off offer." He added that the Houthis chose the release of the Palestinians, who are expected to stand trial in May, over that of Houthi prisoners as they are expected to be eventually released in a future exchange.
Doha-based Omani analyst Saeed Thabet told the newspaper that the Houthi movement's initiative may be used by the rebels to facilitate its status in the region from a local militia to a regional player. "Using the Palestinian prisoners, al-Houthi is trying to expand its status from a local player into a regional one," he said.
While the Houthi movement has now actively shown its support for Hamas, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority officially announced its support of the US-backed Saudi-led Arab Coalition back in 2015, when the kingdom's military intervention in Yemen began.Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, assuming power when it overthrew the Palestinian Authority's local government after the authority led mass arrests of the of the organization's members in order to stop rocket fire toward the Israeli city of Sderot,
Former Yemenite president Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down in 2012 after 33 years in power, following 2011 Arab Spring-inspired mass protests also known as the Yemenite Intifada. In 2015, after the failure of his vice president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to stabilize the country, the Houthi movement launched an uprising, taking control over the Zaidi-majority North.
Fighting broke out between the Houthis and Hadi's loyalists, sparking a civil war, with Yemen divided roughly along former border of the Islamist Yemenite Arab Republic in the Shia North and the Marxist Yemenite People's Republic in the Sunni South, united in 1990.
The Houthi attempt to take over the entirety of Yemen forced Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia, with the kingdom fearing that the Shia movement would become a ground for de-facto Iranian presence in its backyard along the Saudi-Yemenite border, leading to the Arab Coalition's military intervention.
The movement has been supported by Iran both ideologically and militarily, and serves the Islamic Republic's proxy in the Arab peninsula. Sources from the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida claimed late August that Mossad planned to attack targets of the Houthis and Hezbollah in Yemen near Bab-el-Mandeb, a strait located between Yemen and Ethiopia in order to thwart Iranian attempts to deliver weapons to the organizations.
Mossad reportedly believes said weapons could be used for terrorist attacks in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Al-Jarida also reported a Tehran meeting between Houthi leaders, Hezbollah representatives and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders discussing actions aimed at easing pressure in the Strait of Hormuz while simultaneously damaging Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel.
Late Saturday night, Al-Arabiya reported that several ballistic missiles were intercepted above the Saudi capital Riyadh and the southwestern city of Jazan. In a statement to the media, the Arab Coalition confirmed the launches were made by the Houthi militia in northern Yemen.