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Bombing Houthi sites: Escalating tensions amid Gaza war

Jan 17,2024 - Last updated at Jan 17,2024

By bombing Houthi strategic sites in north Yemen, the US and UK have abruptly escalated the confrontation between the Arabs and the West over Israel’s Gaza war. The airstrikes coincided with the flight home of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken from an unproductive tour of this region. During meetings in Amman, Ankara, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Ramallah and Cairo, he called on regional leaders to act against escalating existing spill-over from Israel’s devastating war on Gaza. There are, so far, three fronts.

Cross-border fire between Lebanon’s Hizbollah and the Israeli army began on October 8, the day after Hamas fighters conducted a sudden raid into Israel, killing 1,139 Israelis and foreigners and abducting 140. In Lebanon, 190 people have been killed — more than 140 Hizbollah fighters, 20 civilians and three journalists — and at least 10 soldiers and four civilians have been slain in Israel.

There have been more than 100 strikes by pro-Iranian Iraqi militias on bases in Iraq and Syria hosting US troops, prompting the US to retaliate by hitting militia sites in these countries and the US targeted killing of two Iraqi militia commanders. The assassinations have compelled the Baghdad government to call for the withdrawal of all 2,400 US troops from Iraq. 

The Houthi-US/UK Red Sea front was activated in November with the hijacking of an Israeli owned ship by the Houthis which was followed by attempted Houthi drone and rocket attacks on Western naval vessels and international commercial shipping near the Bab al-Mandab entrance to the Red Sea. So far, most Houthi missiles have been intercepted by Western naval vessels, few have hit any ships and there have been no casualties.

The US-UK strikes on the Houthis followed a UN Security Council resolution demanding the Houthis cease attacks in the Red Sea which handles 12 per cent of global shipping. About 20 per cent of commercial vessels have rerouted around the tip of Africa, lengthening voyages, and raising costs. The Houthis responded on Monday by hitting a US cargo vessel in the Gulf of Aden.

Washington-based Middle East Institute (MEI) Yemen expert Nadwa Dawsari wrote on X, “The Houthis have been desperately waiting to engage with ‘America and Israel’ for 20 years. Since 7 Oct. they recruited 45,000 fighters for the ‘battle of promised conquest and holy Jihad’...the US and the UK made their dream come true.”

Houthi Red Sea operations designed to put pressure on the US and Western powers to secure a ceasefire in Gaza and the US-UK attack have boosted Houthi domestic popularity. This took place at a time there was considerable grumbling among Yemenis over Houthi ministers’ failure to deliver effective governance, goods and services.

The formerly underestimated Houthi tribesmen, dismissed as nobodies, have suddenly become global actors — at least, for the present.

By focusing on the risks of escalation during his regional tour, Blinken showed that he was working at cross-purposes with the Turks and Arabs who argue there will be no expansion and escalation of hostilities of there is a ceasefire. MEI senior fellow Randa Slim summed up the Arab response when she told Al Jazeera, “The region, minus Israel, is not interested in listening to the Americans until the Americans call for a ceasefire.”

The Biden administration’s stand has become all the more difficult to abide now that South Africa has applied to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an interim ruling on a case charging Israel with genocide in Gaza. South Africa aims to secure from the Court an order for Israel to suspend its offensive in Gaza until the ICJ decides whether Israel is committing the crime of genocide. If this is not forthcoming, the ICJ could demand that Israel allow the free flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza as well as restore electricity, water and communications to the besieged strip. Since the discredited Biden administration has not achieved any progress on these existential issues for Gazans, the ICJ — which represents the global community — might have some traction.

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