Escalation in the Red Sea: How it benefits the Houthis and Israel

The war in Gaza is now in its 100th day. It’s reach this mark after the U.S. struck positions in Yemen in response to the rebel group’s attacks on merchant ships. Neither Washington nor Tehran seem to be looking for direct confrontation

A projectile is launched during a military exercise by the Yemeni Houthi rebel group near the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, on Friday.
A projectile is launched during a military exercise by the Yemeni Houthi rebel group near the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, on Friday.EFE

The war in Gaza entered its 100th day on Sunday. The Israeli offensive has displaced most of the population of the Palestinian enclave and pushed hundreds of thousands of Gazans to the brink of starvation. But as it hits the 100-day mark, the world’s attention will be on a spot that’s more than 250 miles away: Yemen. That’s where British and U.S. forces killed at least five people on Friday after launching 73 airstrikes on positions linked to Yemen’s Houthi rebel militia. The strike was in response to the most intense attack of the 27 the Houthis have carried out since November, when they began targeting ships crossing the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, in the Red Sea, in retaliation for the Israeli invasion of Gaza. A day later, in the early hours of Saturday, the U.S. army carried out another, smaller strike near the Sana’a airport, which is used by the rebels to launch projectiles against merchant ships. No injuries were reported.

The two attacks have widened the geographic scope of the conflict and increased the number of actors involved, making the situation even more explosive. The dynamic suits the Houthis, as it supports their message that they are the ones challenging the West and are the true advocates of the Palestinian cause in the Arab world thanks to their strategic ability to disrupt a key global maritime trade route, which has forced ships to circumnavigate the whole of Africa. The situation is also of benefit to Israel: Israel’s main ally, the United States, is directly involved in the attacks against the Houthis, a group supported with money and weapons by Iran — their common enemy. The escalation in the Red Sea has also shifted focus away from Gaza, where Israel’s bombings have decreased in intensity, but still kill at least a hundred people a day (135, on Saturday).

Houthi spokesperson Nasruldeen Amer told Al Jazeera television that the latest attack “will have a firm, strong and effective response.” Hans Grundberg, U.N. special envoy for Yemen — where 80% of the population needs humanitarian aid — has expressed his “serious concern” about the “increasingly precarious regional context” and asked “for all involved to avoid those actions that would worsen the situation in Yemen, escalate the threat to maritime trade routes or further fuel regional tensions at this critical time.”

Washington did not take the decision to attack Houthi targets in Yemen lightly. If there is something that the Joe Biden administration wants to avoid, it is being dragged into a conflict in the Middle East with unpredictable consequences months before an election where his reelection is at stake. The decision to strike was preceded by weeks of deliberations by Biden and his team, with the issue even discussed during the president’s family vacation. On Saturday, Biden said that the United States sent a message to Iran about the actions of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen: “We delivered it privately, and we’re confident we’re well prepared.”

Washington insists that it does not want an open confrontation with the Houthis, much less with Iran. Neither does Tehran, explains Kirsten Fontenrose, from the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative think tank. “It has no reason to accentuate its ties to this conflict or to the Houthis at this time,” the expert believes. It is already achieving, moreover, its strategic goals without the need for direct intervention: the popularity of the United States in the world is in decline and the momentum for normalizing relations between Israel and new Arab countries has slowed, she argues.

The president of the Houthi Revolutionary Committee of Yemen, Mohammad Ali Al Huthi, attends a protest against the airstrikes launched by the U.S. and the United Kingdom this Friday in Sana'a, the capital.
The president of the Houthi Revolutionary Committee of Yemen, Mohammad Ali Al Huthi, attends a protest against the airstrikes launched by the U.S. and the United Kingdom this Friday in Sana'a, the capital.Mohammed Hamoud (Getty Images)

According to Ignacio Álvarez-Ossorio, a specialist in the Middle East and professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the Complutense University of Madrid, it is Israel that has dragged the U.S. into the conflict. He believes it has achieved this by attacking the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Syria, and Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, in a bid to “open a new front.” The expert argues that the expansion of the conflict “benefits” Israel because it puts Washington in the fray with one of Iran’s satellites and “shifts the international community’s attention” away from Gaza. This, in turn, “gives it breathing space to continue its plans in Gaza,” he says. “In some way, many countries are entering a trap, because this does not benefit Western interests, but Israeli interests,” he explains by videoconference.

The escalation of the conflict also reinforces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s account of the conflict in Gaza as a broader struggle between “the forces of light and forces of darkness,” in which Israel leads the former and Iran leads the latter. More and more Israeli commentators fear that Netanyahu — plummeting in the polls and facing questions about his policy on Gaza in the years before the Hamas attack — will seek to prolong the conflict for personal rather than national interests. According to a survey published on Friday by the newspaper Maariv, 63% of Israelis want early elections. These elections would like be won by Benny Gantz, who was in the opposition until he entered the emergency government formed for the war in October.

The Houthi attacks began in November. In theory, the rebel group only targets Israeli-owned or Israeli-flagged merchant ships or vessels destined for or leaving Israel. But, in addition to mistakenly attacking ships that do not fall into these categories, they have also clashed with other vessels, and major shipping companies now avoid the passage. In the last two months of 2023, the number of containers crossing the Red Sea each day fell by 66%, from 500,000 to 200,000. This route accounts for 30% of the world’s container traffic. Ships now circumnavigate Africa via the Cape of New Hope, which has increased shipping costs by 170%.

After weeks of rising tension, Tuesday marked a turning point. The Yemeni movement launched its biggest attack yet. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning the Houthi attack. The White House had been demanding the rebel group to stop its hostile actions, but its pleas fell on deaf ears. Washington feared that if it did not take strong action, it risked losing credibility and deterrent power in the area. In the early hours of Friday morning, U.S. and British forces attacked anti-aircraft surveillance systems, radar and arsenals of drones, cruise and ballistic missiles at various points in Yemen under the control of the Houthi rebels. The price of a barrel of Brent crude oil climbed more than $2, although it later dropped by half as fears of a supply cut were allayed.

According to Ibrahim Jalal, an expert on the Gulf, that is exactly what the Houthis were hoping for: “To gain even more popular support, to exploit the undeniable pro-Palestinian and anti-foreign intervention sentiments for their political ends.”

Gerald M. Feierstein, former U.S. diplomat and Middle East expert at the Middle East Institute think tank, agrees. He argues that “the Houthis’ effort to insert themselves into the Gaza conflict” is aimed at “strengthening their support base in the country and cementing their movement more firmly in the so-called ‘axis of resistance,’” to which Hezbollah and Hamas also belong. The Houthis have scored points even among their detractors. Particularly as the rebel group’s enemy — the internationally recognized government of Yemen — talks more about the attacks on shipping in the Red Sea than about the civilian death toll in Gaza. On Friday, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in the Houthi-held capital of Sana’a to protest the U.S. and U.K. airstrikes.

Last Wednesday, the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies published an analysis of Arab public opinion on the Israeli war in Gaza. The results of the survey — carried out in 16 Arab countries — show 69% in solidarity with the Palestinians and support for Hamas. Another 23% only support Gazans, but reject the Islamist movement that launched the October attack on Israel, which left some 1,200 dead. In contrast, 94% criticize the position of the United States (which has vetoed a ceasefire and finances and arms Israel) in the crisis. In fact, 82% define it as “very bad.” Iran, despite regional rivalries and differences between the Sunni and Shiite axes, does not fare badly, with 37% in favor of the country’s position, and 48% against.

The U.S. military intervention has raised alarm in other Middle Eastern countries that harbor pro-Iranian militias hostile to Israel, as they fear the conflict could spread to their borders. “We strongly condemn any attempts to expand the scope of this conflict, as it will burn everyone,” said Iraqi President Abdellatif Rashid. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lebanon — where Hezbollah militia clash daily with the Israeli army in the south — released a statement, in which it “expressed grave concern about the escalation and military actions in the Red Sea, as well as airstrikes on Yemeni territory.”

In the United States, there is also growing concern that the conflict will escalate. “We should be worried about regional escalation,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat, wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “Iran uses groups like the Houthis to fight their battles, maintain plausible deniability and prevent a direct conflict with the U.S. or others. … It needs to stop, and my hope is they’ve gotten the message.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo

¿Quieres añadir otro usuario a tu suscripción?

Si continúas leyendo en este dispositivo, no se podrá leer en el otro.

¿Por qué estás viendo esto?


Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo y solo puedes acceder a EL PAÍS desde un dispositivo a la vez.

Si quieres compartir tu cuenta, cambia tu suscripción a la modalidad Premium, así podrás añadir otro usuario. Cada uno accederá con su propia cuenta de email, lo que os permitirá personalizar vuestra experiencia en EL PAÍS.

En el caso de no saber quién está usando tu cuenta, te recomendamos cambiar tu contraseña aquí.

Si decides continuar compartiendo tu cuenta, este mensaje se mostrará en tu dispositivo y en el de la otra persona que está usando tu cuenta de forma indefinida, afectando a tu experiencia de lectura. Puedes consultar aquí los términos y condiciones de la suscripción digital.

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS