Israel’s involvement in the Yemen war throughout its five year duration is an open secret. In 2015, when the Saudi Arabian Embassy in the capital Sanaa was seized by the Houthi forces in retaliation for the Saudi-led coalition’s aggression, a large cache of Israeli-made weapons and ammunition was discovered, in addition to documents detailing intentions by the US to establish a military base on Perim Island near the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, “to protect [America’s] interests and ensure the security of Israel”. The island has been under the coalition’s control since it was wrested from the Houthis in the same year. Foreign mercenaries fighting on behalf of coalition-partner the UAE were also said to have been trained by the Israeli military at camps in the Negev Desert.
Amid the ever-growing normalisation of relations between Israel and Gulf states, it should come as no surprise that it was reported last week that Israel and the Emirati-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) are “secret friends” with meetings facilitated by the UAE.
The STC’s vice-chairman, Hani Bin Briek, confirmed that relations with Israel are “very good” while Tel Aviv reacted positively to the prospects of a “new autonomous state in Yemen”. The fragmentation of Arab states is, of course, consistent with Zionist strategies in the region; support for separatism in the south of Yemen echoes Israel’s decades-old policy of backing Kurdish statehood.
Covert Israeli interventions in Yemen are not without precedent. During the 1962-1970 civil war Israel airlifted arms and money in support of the royalist Mutawakkilite dynasty — ironically the predecessors of the Houthis — against the Nasserite republicans. The Saudis also supported the Zaydi monarchs who ultimately lost out in the war.
Securing Israel’s southern port of Eilat and a shipping lane which grants access not only to the Suez Canal but also the Red Sea and through Bab Al-Mandab to the Indian Ocean and beyond is of vital interest to Tel Aviv, especially as a gateway to the Far East and China, which is a major trading partner. The wars with Arab neighbours in 1956, 1967 and 1973 all involved blocking Israeli shipping. In the latter, Yemen closed off the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and blockaded the Red Sea. Ever since, Israel has viewed any attempt to block access to the Red Sea as an act of war and has threatened to deploy all branches of its military in the event of Iran doing so.
As with every other party involved in the current conflict in Yemen, access to all seaways leading to the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean play a significant part in the underlying agendas. It is certainly one of the charges levied against the UAE over its involvement in the recent STC “coup” of Socotra Island.
However, the revelation of Israeli support for the STC is a worrying development for the prospects of maintaining a unified Yemen, however elusive that appears to be. Any attempts by Tel Aviv to back the emergence of a break-away “independent” state in the region should be treated with suspicion. The STC has made it clear that it intends to expand further beyond its current control of Aden and parts of the Dale and Lahj provinces. Clashes continue in the Abyan province with the Saudi-backed militia and there have been calls for solidarity with the STC in Hadhramout.
The Houthi-aligned government in Sanaa is committed to the territorial integrity of Yemen and is well-aware of Israel’s destructive ambitions. “The Israeli enemy sees Yemen as a threat to it, explained Information Minister Dhaifalla Al-Shami, “especially in its strategic location, so it has worked to find a foothold in Yemen through the UAE’s role.”
Earlier this month, the leader of the Houthi movement, Sayyid Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi, criticised Saudi Arabia and the UAE for siding with “the chief enemy of the Muslim world,” Israel.
“The US and Israel seek to enslave Yemeni people,” Al-Houthi said in a televised speech. “Their plots target the entire Muslim community, and are meant to disintegrate Islamic nations from within through sowing the seeds of discord and division.” He has stated previously that the Houthis are ready to support the resistance factions in Lebanon and Palestine against Israel.
Moreover, the Houthis, who are supported by most of the Yemeni armed forces, have threatened Israel once before with “revenge” over its known involvement in the Yemen war of aggression. The Defence Minister in the National Salvation Government (NSG), General Mohammed Al-Atefi, said late last year that a “bank of military and maritime targets” have already been identified and that they will not hesitate to attack them when the leadership decides to do so.
These are security challenges that Israel takes seriously, especially with the long-range ballistic missiles and armed drones in the Yemeni army’s arsenal, which cross-border offensives against Saudi have shown to be very accurate. Israel has also expressed a willingness to attack Houthi targets near Bab Al-Mandab.
The Houthis also have a consistent stance on supporting the Palestinian cause. Al-Houthi even went as far as to offer to exchange captured Saudi pilots for the release of prominent Hamas members imprisoned in the Kingdom.
Direct military confrontation between Israel and the Houthis is unlikely and unrealistic for the time being, although both sides have voiced a willingness to take action if necessary. However, Israel is playing a dangerous game; should it become more embedded in the war in Yemen it runs the risk of conflict with the Houthis. Just as Israel has securitised its access to the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, it should not be surprised if the Houthi authorities decide to react to Israeli attempts to sow further discord and break up the already fragile Yemeni state. The chief-backer of the STC, the UAE, has also been threatened by the Houthis. “Abu Dhabi can be attacked at any time,” claimed a pro-Houthi military spokesperson.
At the moment, the main focus of the Houthis is to take control of Marib city from the Saudi-backed militia fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognised government-in-exile, which is increasingly proving to be an irrelevant mouthpiece of Riyadh. The NSG, which controls most of Yemen in terms of population density, will turn its attention to the south once Marib has been secured. When the inevitable clash with the STC comes, we will see the indirect confrontation with Israel come out into the open.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.