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The psychological complex behind the Houthis' pro-Palestine propaganda

As Gaza was being hit by Israeli air strikes last weekend, it garnered the attention of many political figures across the Middle East and North African region, including Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalem. In a Facebook post, he expressed the Houthi movement's solidarity with Palestine and affirmed the position that the Palestinians have every right to resist against "Zionist aggression".

In Yemen, the Houthis have long relied on their pan-Islamic, anti-Western, anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric to legitimise their movement. Their official slogan – "God is Great, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, victory to Islam" – is proof of this. For them, the Palestinian cause, which has been in the hearts of the Yemeni nation for decades, is a means to mobilise the movement by highlighting a greater moral struggle in their aims and objectives. It is a lot easier to rally a crowd around a wider struggle about which many feel passionate and can relate to.

Examining the history of the Houthis also explains why their Palestinian rhetoric is central to their propaganda. In addition to the slogan giving the impression of contributing to a wider struggle, it is also an adaptation of one of the late Ayatollah Khomeini's chants during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Members of the Houthi movement who recognise the historic connotations of the chant get a sense of belonging to a wider umbrella group. The success of the Iranian Revolution also gives them hope for their domestic aspirations.

The Houthis are not unique in this sense. The Palestinian cause was used by Middle Eastern regimes to mobilise public opinion throughout the latter part of the 20th century and broaden the sense of struggle. Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh did this himself in February in a speech in which he accused the Palestinian Authority of betraying him for siding with the Hadi government, before reiterating his support for the Palestinian cause.

To understand this, it must be examined in the context of crowd psychology. In his book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895), French psychologist Gustave Le Bon set out this concept which can explain how the Houthis' pro-Palestine stance allows for such mobilisation to take place. "A crowd thinks in images and the image itself immediately calls up a series of other images, having no logical connection with the first," wrote Le Bon. By way of example, we can see how, when the Hadi government came to power, the Houthis were quick to hold it accountable and protest over inflation and the cuts in gas subsidies; they held mass protests in which the official slogan was chanted. Shortly after the September 2014 coup, a pro-Houthi protest was organised outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Sana'a in which, again, the slogan was chanted. The embassy was targeted as the Houthis regard the Saudis as enemies of Yemen and wanted to perpetuate the notion that the Saudi regime is akin to the Zionist state.

There are many reasons why Houthi officials would want their cause to abound with connotations of pan-Islamism, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Abdulsalem was reiterating that the Houthi movement is in solidarity with Gaza against indiscriminate Israeli air strikes. In doing so he tried to take the moral high ground against harming civilians in armed conflict, even though the Houthis are known for their indiscriminate attacks against civilians. The irony was apparently lost on him.

Though they speak against the siege of Gaza, the Houthis have imposed a siege on Taiz, Yemen's third largest city with a population of around half a million people. Civilians are forced to smuggle food, water and even oxygen into the city through a dangerous mountain route. Furthermore, the Houthis are notorious for their use of child soldiers. UNICEF estimates that 30 per cent of the fighters in Yemen are children and the UN has followed this with a study which confirms that 72 per cent of child soldiers in Yemen are recruited by the Houthis.

As with many other actors in the region, the Houthis are continuing to use the Palestinian cause for their own propaganda purposes and to project an image that they are on the right side of history. By doing this, though, they not only grossly misinterpret the Palestinian call for justice and liberation by using violent and anti-Semitic sentiments – as a result of which Yemen's Jews have suffered directly – but they also commit the same sort of crimes against civilians for which they condemn Israel. This dimension of their propaganda revolves around tapping into the public subconscious, a part of the ego which is fixed on an emotive state, in order to draw parallels that may not necessarily exist but which assist them in rallying the people and masking their hypocrisy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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