Middle East

The Houthis’ ‘Sovereign Solidarity’ with Palestine


Since October 7, Yemen has made an unexpected return from the margins of global attention.

Yemenis drive past a large billboard with a picture depicting the navy destroyers of foreign countries including the US and UK, and the words “Navy coalition will be defeated,” December 31, 2023, in Sana’a, Yemen. Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

The Houthi movement’s seemingly ad hoc seizure of shipping vessels in the Red Sea, which began in early November in response to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, quickly became a concerted campaign to disrupt global shipping and supply chains dependent on access to the Suez Canal. After assembling a coalition of states to prevent attacks on shipping and issuing warnings to Houthi leaders, on January 11, US and British forces launched the first in a series of airstrikes on Houthi military sites in Yemen.

US mainstream media has largely framed the Houthis’ actions in terms of a regional proxy war with Iran, amplifying claims that the group (Ansar Allah, as it designates itself) is “taking their marching orders from Tehran.”[1] Understanding Houthi actions in the Red Sea in these terms, however, fails to capture the popularity of the Palestinian cause in Yemen that has guided successive Yemeni governments’ relations with the wider region—or Ansar Allah’s effort to claim a place in this legacy of sovereign solidarity from its non-sovereign position amid Yemen’s ongoing civil war.

Popular and official support for Palestine in Yemen predates the creation of the state of Israel and spans Yemen’s many political configurations. In 1947, Yemeni representatives to the United Nations vocally opposed the plan to partition Palestine. Their continuing solidarity was reflected in the policies of both the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) and the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) before their unification. In 1971, for example, South Yemen allowed a Palestinian militant organization to attack an Israeli ship from its territory. During the 1973 October War, it closed the Bab al-Mandab strait to fuel bound for Israel.[2] After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the two Yemens hosted more than one thousand displaced Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters and established military camps for them in Sana’a and Aden. Following the unification in 1990, the Republic of Yemen also pressed the United States for diplomatic recognition of the PLO and continued to extend the same rights and resources to Palestinian refugees as they did to Yemeni citizens.[3]

Palestine—and Gaza, in particular—has long mobilized mass support across Yemen’s political divisions, even in the context of civil unrest and violence.

At a popular level, protests in Yemen against the current Israeli campaign in Gaza have reached an unprecedented size. But Palestine—and Gaza, in particular—has long mobilized mass support across Yemen’s political divisions, even in the context of civil unrest and violence. When Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008–09, I vividly recall seeing Houthi signs and slogans amid a varied crowd of protesters in Sana’a. At the time, the Houthis were laying low, having just survived several rounds of insurgent warfare in Saada and other parts of northern Yemen, but their supporters risked visibly coming to the streets for Gaza. Then, as now, the ideological and organizational mix on display at protests illustrates how Palestine is an issue on which Yemenis set aside otherwise sharp antagonisms.

At the same time, where and with whose authority protests take place today reflect the increasing political fragmentation in Yemen in which the Houthis’ Red Sea campaign needs to be understood. Nearly ten years into a protracted civil war, different parts of the country experience very different day-to-day political conditions, none of which are consistent with free expression. While leaders of every major political faction have pledged their sympathies with the Palestinian people, their embrace of street protests have been more uneven. Ansar Allah has actively encouraged large crowds in areas under its control, including Sana’a, which they have controlled entirely since early 2015 along with much of the northern part of the country. The Southern Transitional Council, on the other hand, which exercises de facto control in Aden and its periphery and is materially supported by the United Arab Emirates, has largely prohibited protests. Meanwhile, the internationally-recognized government, supported by Saudi Arabia and composed of a fractious collection of parties, lacks a uniform approach in the areas it controls.

For many years, representatives of Ansar Allah have sought to bolster their claims to sovereignty by resisting negotiations with the internationally-recognized government of Yemen in favor of direct talks with Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition of states working to restore Yemen’s displaced government. Talks began in 2022 as backchannel negotiations during a brief ceasefire. Notably, they advanced along the same timeline as Saudi-Israeli normalization, a policy unpopular not only with the Houthis but across Yemeni society. In this context, the group undoubtedly hopes that its Red Sea campaign—by more starkly positioning it as part of the Axis of Resistance to Israel—will improve its position in regional and domestic negotiations over the future of Yemen.

Houthi solidarity with Palestine also helps them carve out a distinct place in the eyes of a watching Yemeni public. Onlookers have celebrated as, in contrast to the relative inaction of other states in the region, the Houthis have managed to cause significant disruption: Over the past two months, international firms have faced the choice of re-routing around Africa—adding about ten days to the trip from Asia to Europe—or paying increasingly steep insurance premiums to continue transiting through the Red Sea.

In the longer term, however, whether it leads to wider regional conflict or not, this act of sovereign solidarity could push an inclusive and sustainable peace in Yemen even further from reach.

In the short term, Houthi attacks in the Red Sea are boosting the group’s popularity and discrediting Arab states associated with normalization with Israel. In the longer term, however, whether it leads to wider regional conflict or not, this act of sovereign solidarity could push an inclusive and sustainable peace in Yemen even further from reach. The United States, invested in supporting Israel and in protecting global shipping, initially responded to the disruption by putting together a coalition of ten states to deter attacks (notably absent were the two Gulf states most directly involved in different arenas of the conflict in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE). Following continued disruption to the supply chain, the United States and Britain have escalated to striking Houthi military targets in Yemen.

Houthi-Saudi negotiations are on hold and will be difficult to restart. Meanwhile, advocates of a political settlement that includes the Houthis are likely to find a chillier reception from international organizations, including the UN, particularly in light of the Biden administration’s decision on January 17 to add Ansar Allah back to the Specially Designated Global Terrorist List (SDGT). The group was removed from both the SDGT and Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list in 2021 after international organizations mobilized in the face of humanitarian collapse. These changes could also encourage the Saudi-led coalition to reconsider its shelved campaign to retake the port city of Hodeidah.

Most at risk from recent developments is the civilian population of Yemen. Even before October 7, several major aid organizations had started to rethink their operations in Houthi-held areas of Yemen, and the current crisis is exacerbating these tensions. In December 2023, World Food Programme negotiations with the Houthis over aid distribution broke down, with the organization announcing an official pause. The military escalation of the conflict, and the terrorist designation, may hasten an even wider humanitarian retreat.

 

[Stacey Philbrick Yadav is professor and chair of International Relations at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.]

 


 

Endnotes

[1]What’s Behind the Attacks on Shipping Vessels in the Red Sea?” Morning Edition, Nation Public Radio, December 19, 2023.

[2] Ammar al-Ashwal, “Yemen and the Curse of Geography: Bab al-Mandab Disputed by Great Power Rivalries,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 18, 2021.

[3] Helen Lackner, “Yemen Has a Long Tradition of Solidarity with the Palestinian People,” Jacobin, December 8, 2023.

 



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