Attacks on shipping in the southern Red Sea have heightened fears of the Israel-Gaza war spreading.

The US Defense Department said three commercial ships were attacked by Yemen’s Iran-allied Houthi movement in international Red Sea waters, and a US destroyer operating in the area shot down three drones as it responded to distress calls.

A Houthi spokesperson said its navy had attacked two Israeli ships in the Red Sea with an armed drone and a missile, though an Israeli military spokesman said the two ships had no connection to Israel.

So who are Yemen’s Houthis, and what part are they playing in the conflict?
What do we know about Yemen’s Houthi rebels?

Earlier this year, Yemen’s Houthis joined the Israel-Gaza war from their seat of power in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, declaring on October 31 they had fired drones and missiles at Israel.

But the Houthis actually formed three decades ago.

As Reuters has previously reported, in the late 1990s the Houthi family in far north Yemen “set up a religious revival movement for the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam, which had once ruled Yemen but whose northern heartland had became impoverished and marginalised.”

The Houthis fought a series of guerrilla wars with the national army as friction with the government continued to grow.

Ian Parmeter, a research scholar at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, says the Houthis are “essentially in charge of Yemen”.

“The Houthis, who were originally pretty interested in control of the northern area of Yemen, have gradually expanded south as the civil war in Yemen has got going,” he told ABC News.

“They’re getting support from Iran, and this is all part of Iran’s strategy to get various proxy groups that can, when Iran wishes, carry out violent actions that support Iranian strategy aims.”

Is the Israel-Gaza war now playing out on a maritime front?

This latest incident follows a series of attacks in Middle Eastern waters since war intensified between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas on October 7.

The group, which controls most of Yemen’s Red Sea coast, had previously fired ballistic missiles and armed drones at Israel and vowed to target more Israeli vessels.

Mr Parmeter says “we have to assume” the Israel-Gaza war is now playing out at sea.

“Iran’s strategy in relation to the Gaza war seems to be, at this stage, that it doesn’t want its proxies in the region – and by proxies I mean Hezbollah as well as the Houthis in Yemen – to have a nuisance value as far as Israel is concerned, but not to get really involved in-depth in the war,” he said.

“Because Iran does not want Hezbollah and the Houthis to actually lose the capacity they have to provide protection for Iran itself.

“What the Houthis are doing in the Red Sea is actually creating something of a nuisance rather than a strategic front against Israel.

“It doesn’t seem as if the Houthis are deliberately targeting the American ship, because that could be an escalation that they don’t want.

“I don’t see this, at this stage, being something which is going to be a major military distraction for Israel. The Houthis aren’t really strong enough for that.”

Why is the Red Sea important?

The Red Sea stretches 2,250km from the Suez Canal in the north to the southern Gulf of Aden.

The body of water has long been an important trade route, with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 only increasing the volume of traffic passing through the busy coastal region.

What might happen next?

Mr Parmeter says as long as the Israel-Gaza war continues, “the Houthis will probably try to fire missiles into Israel”.

“It’ll be rather hard for them to be successful because Israel’s Iron Dome system seems to be quite effective,” he says.

“But it does mean Israeli security will need to watch what’s happening in Yemen to see what the Houthis are up to. But they will be assisted by the Americans.

Source » abc