In retaliation for the war waged by Israel against their Palestinian allies Hamas, the Houthi rebels in Yemen have increased attacks against the Jewish state. After claiming several explosive drone and ballistic missile attacks, the Houthis claimed, on Sunday, December 3, to have attacked two boats in the Red Sea.

This new incident comes against a backdrop of increased tensions in the region after the spectacular capture, on November 19, of a ship at sea owned by an Israeli businessman.

A claimed member of the “axis of resistance,” which refers to armed groups enemies of Israel allied with Iran, the Yemeni Houthis reiterated their threat in the Red Sea and warned that “ships belonging to or dealing with the enemy Israeli will become a legitimate target.” The rebels said they would continue their military operations “until Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank ceases.”

But why is this group of rebels, which controls a large part of Yemen, increasing attacks against the Jewish state? Explanations in three points.

Taking their name from the Al-Houthi family clan, the Houthis designate a political-military movement which developed in the 1990s in northern Yemen in the governorate of Saada, a province bordering Saudi Arabia. Unlike the two-thirds of the Yemeni population who are Sunni, the Houthis identify with Zaidism, a minority branch of Shiite Islam mainly established in the country.

Nostalgic for the Zaidi imamate, a politico-religious regime long in place in North Yemen, which ended after the republican revolution of 1962, the Houthis share the idea of ​​a revival of Zaidi cultural identity. An identity which, according to them, was gradually erased by the central power, in particular after the unification of Yemen in 1990. The Houthis then structured themselves around feelings of marginalization and discrimination, a loss of influence as well political, social and economic as well as religious. They indeed perceive the spread of rigorist Sunni currents, such as Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia, as a threat.

These grievances, to which are added complex clan rivalries, lead Houthi supporters to oppose the central power more and more head-on. Over the course of armed conflicts against the regime in the early 2000s, the popular uprising of 2011 and the civil war that began in 2014, the rebels gradually established themselves as the new masters of Yemen.

Today, they control about 30 percent of the territory: a vast swathe in the north and west of the country, the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, and the capital, Sanaa. In total, the Houthis exercise authority over nearly two-thirds of the population.

At the beginning of the 2000s, the movement led by Hussein Al-Houthi, a former parliamentarian who had become a dissident, gradually emerged as the only force capable of challenging the regime’s policies. The Houthis particularly criticize the alliance concluded between the United States and Yemen in the fight against terrorism. They castigate American imperialism and Israel, seen as great threats to the sovereignty of the country. The slogans brandished by the supporters bear witness to this: “God is great. Death to America, death to Israel, the curse for the Jews, the victory for Islam. »

The current leader, the old autocrat Ali Abdallah Saleh, in power since 1978, is worried about this movement which finds a certain echo among the population. This face-to-face between government forces and Zaidi insurgents led, from 2004, to a long armed conflict, called the “Saada War”, during which Hussein Al-Houthi was killed. His death helped radicalize the movement.

From 2011, following the Arab Spring, popular demonstrations led to the departure of President Saleh. The Houthi militiamen are taking advantage of this uprising to strengthen their territorial control in the north of the country. The former vice-president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is then responsible for leading the transition which should lead to the drafting of a new constitution taking into account all of the country’s forces. However, the government proves incapable of providing a convincing solution to political and community divisions and fails to respond to the aspirations of the population.

The Houthi rebels capitalized on this failure and, thanks to covert support from Iran and former President Saleh, they captured the capital Sanaa in September 2014, then the presidential palace a few months later.

This coup precipitates the internationalization of the civil war. Saudi Arabia, where the deposed president took refuge, took the lead in a regional military coalition in 2015 and committed to restoring the internationally recognized government.

But the conflict is bogged down and the jihadist threat is growing. Despite the profligacy of the resources deployed, Saudi Arabia is unable to change the balance of power with the Houthis and acknowledges the failure of its coalition. Now seeking to extricate itself from this quagmire, Riyadh is paving the way in April 2023 for peace negotiations with the rebels. The toll of the conflict is very heavy: according to the UN, this war left 400,000 victims, including civilians. The country is currently experiencing “the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world”, according to Unicef.

The armed group, which acquired its military arsenal with the help of Iran, has always made the fight against Israel an ideological marker. The recent attacks hardly surprise specialists in the Yemeni conflict. “We could expect that a group whose anti-Israel and anti-American ideological formation is not just a slogan would take part in this front, with or without the green light from Iran,” explains to Le Monde Farea Al-Muslimi, researcher at the Chatham House think tank (London).

The Houthi rebels are mainly carrying out a show of force aimed at increasing their legitimacy within their population, rather than truly influencing the conflict between Israel and Hamas. “Their participation in the fight against Israel is a tremendous opportunity to unify the Yemeni population, which is overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian but suffers under their rule hunger, corruption and mafia-style governance,” further specifies the Yemen specialist.

While gaining the support of a people undermined by a serious humanitarian crisis, the rebels also hope to extend their influence in the region and weigh against Saudi Arabia. It is a “calculated strategy” whose objective is to “put pressure on the Americans” in order to “accelerate the conclusion of an agreement with the Saudis”, assures AFP Maged Al-Madhaji, co-founder of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies think tank.

However, this strategy could backfire against the Houthis. After the ship’s capture in the Red Sea, the United States announced it might designate the rebel group a “terrorist organization” again. A decision which, if taken, could obstruct this quest for legitimacy.