Yemen’s Houthi rebels for the first time Tuesday claimed missile and drone attacks targeting Israel, drawing their main sponsor Iran closer into the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip and further raising the risks of a regional conflict erupting.
The Houthis had been suspected of an attack earlier this month targeting Israel by sending missiles and drones over the crucial shipping lane of the Red Sea, an assault that saw the U.S. Navy shoot down the projectiles.
This time on Tuesday, however, Israel said its own fighter jets and its new Arrow missile defense system shot down two salvos of incoming fire hours apart as it approached the country’s key Red Sea shipping port of Eilat.
The Houthis, who have held Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, since 2014 as part of that country’s ruinous war, claimed three attacks on Israel in a later military statement, without elaborating on the timeframe of the operations and whether Tuesday’s salvos represented one or two attacks.
Beyond the attack that saw the U.S. shoot down missiles, there had been a mysterious explosion Thursday that hit the Egyptian resort town of Taba, near the border with Israel. The blast, which Egyptian authorities have not explained, wounded six people.
″Our armed forces launched a large batch of ballistic missiles and a large number of drones at various targets of the Israeli enemy,” Houthi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree said in a televised statement. “The Yemeni Armed Forces confirm that this operation is the third operation in support of our oppressed brothers in Palestine and confirm that we will continue to carry out more qualitative strikes with missiles and drones until the Israeli aggression stops.”
For Israel, Tuesday’s attack marked an incredibly rare reported in-combat use of the Arrow missile defense system, which intercepts long-range ballistic missiles with a warhead designed to destroy targets while they are in space, according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“All aerial threats were intercepted outside of Israeli territory,” the Israeli military said. “No infiltrations were identified into Israeli territory.”
However, the missile fire sparked a rare air raid siren alarm to go off in Eilat, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Jerusalem, sending people fleeing into shelters.
Saree did not identify the specific weapons used in the attack. However, the use of the arrow suggests it was a ballistic missile. The Houthis have a variant of its Burkan ballistic missile, modeled after a type of an Iranian missile, believed to be able to reach over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) to strike near Eilat.
The incoming fire comes as the troop-and-aircraft-carrying USS Bataan and other elements of its strike group are likely in the Red Sea now, along with other U.S. vessels.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, acknowledged the Houthi fire targeting Israel, suggesting the rebels had missiles able to reach some 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles).
“This is something we will continue to monitor,” Ryder said. “We want to prevent a broader regional conflict.”
Saudi Arabia also did not respond to questions. The kingdom saw four of its soldiers killed in its southern Jazan province in recent days in fighting with the Houthis, according to a report Tuesday by Bloomberg citing anonymous sources. That’s even as Saudi Arabia has tried for months to reach a peace deal with the Houthis after a yearslong deadlock war against them.
The Houthis’ declaration further drew Iran into the conflict. Tehran has long sponsored both the Houthis and Hamas, as well as the Lebanese Shiite militia group Hezbollah, which continues to trade deadly cross-border fire with the Israelis. U.S. troops also have been targeted in drone attacks on bases in Iraq and Syria claimed by Iranian-allied militia groups since the war started.
The Houthis follow the Shiite Zaydi faith, a branch of Shiite Islam that is almost exclusively found in Yemen. The rebels’ slogan has long been: “God is the greatest; death to America; death to Israel; curse the Jews; victory to Islam.”
But “now they have the hard power to back it,” said Thomas Juneau, a professor at the University of Ottawa who has studied Yemen for years.
“It was just a matter of time before they would be able to do this,” Juneau said, noting the rebels’ steadily advancing missile program that came with Iranian assistance. “The fact that there’s another front directly to the south raises the risk that Israel (air defenses) can be overwhelmed and then it can be that much more worrying” if Hezbollah, Hamas and others launch massive missile barrages.
Iran has long denied arming the Houthis even as it has been transferring rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and other weaponry to the Yemeni militia using sea routes. Independent experts, Western nations and United Nations experts have traced components seized aboard other detained vessels back to Iran.
The reason for that likely is a U.N. arms embargo that has prohibited weapons transfers to the Houthis since 2014.
There also has been at least one attack that the Houthis claimed where suspicion later fell fully on Iran. In 2019, cruise missiles and drones successfully penetrated Saudi Arabia and struck the heart of its oil industry in Abqaiq. That attack temporarily halved the kingdom’s production and spiked global energy prices by the biggest percentage since the 1991 Gulf War.
While the Houthis claimed the Abqaiq attack, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and analysts blamed Iran. U.N. experts similarly said it was “unlikely” the Houthis carried out the assault, though Tehran denied being involved.
Iran’s mission to the U.N. did not respond to a request for comment on the Houthi attacks.