Threats to Israel’s national security emerging from Yemeni civil war

Houthi control of Yemen’s Western coast from north of Hodeidah to al-Luhaya provides it with more than 100 kilometers of shoreline positioned adjacent to a key passage for Israeli maritime commerce.

HOUTHI MOVEMENT supporters shout slogans as they attend a rally to mark the fourth anniversary of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen’s war, in Sana’a, Yemen, on March 26. (photo credit: REUTERS)
HOUTHI MOVEMENT supporters shout slogans as they attend a rally to mark the fourth anniversary of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen’s war, in Sana’a, Yemen, on March 26.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran’s project to arm its partners throughout the region with precision missiles has expanded beyond Syria to include Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. If Israel’s aerial and intelligence superiority over Syrian territory allowed it to disrupt shipment and production there, the newer participants in the precision project present more formidable challenges. Yemen has long been on the margins of Israeli national security discourse, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s discussion of the country with a high-level US delegation in late October may reflect the country’s new position of higher priority. Beyond the threat Netanyahu mentioned of long-range and high-accuracy missiles launched from Houthi-controlled territory and landing in Israel, officials ought to monitor a variety of other challenges that Yemen could present for Israeli national security.
First, while it is undeniable that the range of Houthi weapons has been expanding rapidly in recent years, there is no open-source evidence indicating that Iran-backed Houthis are in possession of missiles capable of traveling the 2,200 kilometers to reach Israel. Because it is unlikely that amid dismal poverty and bitter fighting the Yemeni rebels developed advanced missiles (which strongly resemble Iranian models) in just a few years, it is highly probable that the weapons are being supplied by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). On a tactical level, it seems unlikely that Iran would provide the Houthis with cutting edge missile systems necessary to threaten Israel from such an incredible distance, particularly when it has other, more reliable partners within closer range. On the strategic level, however, Iran has proved that it seeks to use the element of surprise to its advantage, so no such eventuality should be ruled out.
Second, Houthi control of Yemen’s Western coast from north of Hodeidah to al-Luhaya provides it with more than 100 kilometers of shoreline positioned adjacent to a key passage for Israeli maritime commerce. Some $15 billion of goods pass through Bab al-Mandeb and the Suez Canal each year – meaning they pass by Houthi territory as well – on their way to and from Israel. Having already demonstrated animosity toward Israel as well as capabilities to mine the waters, launch anti-ship missiles and target traffic with explosive naval drones, the group has the potential to threaten Israel’s maritime traffic.
Third, Lebanese Hezbollah, widely classified as Israel’s most immediate strategic threat, reaps rewards from the ongoing conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Hezbollah operatives are reportedly training Houthi fighters, but are likely also benefiting from the lessons learned and combat experience against the Saudi-backed forces. The Lebanese group’s
participation in the war in Yemen is different from its role in Syria in a significant way: in Yemen it is learning how to fight states which use advanced weapons systems and have aerial superiority, whereas in Syria it learned to fight against militias with the help of Russian airpower.
IN PARTICULAR, Hezbollah forces in Yemen are able to experience or at least witness the sophisticated use of drones in evading hostile air defense batteries, the launch of precision missile strikes against critical infrastructure, and the utilization of air defenses against US-made aircraft. Regarding the latter, the open-source intelligence website Bellingcat noted that, after an MQ-9 Reaper drone was downed in June, it is “reasonable to suggest that the Houthis have made some strides in their military capability and weapon systems, which poses a risk to the Saudi-led coalition and US operations in Yemen. It is important to note that the Houthis have not publicized what weapons they used to shoot down the drone.” These experiences, including both successes as well as failures, create knowledge that could serve Hezbollah in a future conflict with Israel.
In addition, despite Yemen’s status as the poorest country in the Arab world, the Houthis have actually provided financial support to Hezbollah through a fundraising campaign conducted on behalf of the Lebanese organization.
Finally, on a broader geopolitical level, the situation in Yemen impacts Saudi Arabia, which is a key member of the informal regional coalition against Iranian hegemony, and therefore has second-order effects on Israel. For example, Saudi Arabia’s anti-Houthi campaign in Yemen is extremely costly for the kingdom in terms of manpower, resources and reputation, a price Iran has exacted by investing the comparatively paltry amount of an estimated tens of millions of dollars per month in the Houthis. Because the lion’s share of Saudi security efforts are being diverted to Yemen, an area that is of minimal importance to Iran, the continuation of the conflict there distracts from the collective effort to push back against Iran in arenas which are more important to Tehran and where it is more vulnerable. Therefore, if successful, recent developments – which indicate that the Saudis are seeking a diplomatic exit from the conflict – could allow for more concerted pressure on Iran to stop its aggressive activities in the region.
Despite its geographic distance from Israel, Yemen is undoubtedly an arena that affects Israel in key arenas, including its ability to cope with the Iranian threat and international trade. This is not to suggest that Israel should become militarily involved in Yemen – judging by the Egyptian and Saudi experiences, the costs are high and the benefits are few. But it may nevertheless prove important to keep close watch of the situation there, to prepare for the myriad of potential first- and second-order effects.
Ari Heistein is a research fellow and chief of staff to the director at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Dr. Yoel Guzansky is a senior research fellow at INSS, focusing on Gulf security.


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