Drone and missile attacks by Huthi rebels in Yemen have barely troubled Israel but the Iran-backed group’s overriding target is strategic rather than military, analysts say.
A series of launches over most of the Arabian Peninsula targeting Israel from war-torn, impoverished Yemen have either been shot down by missile defences or fallen short.
However, experts say the Huthis, who seized the capital Sanaa in 2014 and control much of country, have a different goal in mind: regional and domestic legitimacy.
“The group seeks strategic objectives through their involvement in a regional conflict, including securing political influence in Yemen and the broader region,” Mohammed Albasha, a senior Middle East analyst for the US-based Navanti Group, told AFP.
They are “seeking recognition and legitimacy as a significant player”, he said, adding that such attacks “also aim to rejuvenate and mobilise their support base” at home.
The attacks, triggered by Israel’s war on Hamas, follow more than eight years of fighting a Saudi-led coalition at home.
The Huthis have declared themselves part of Iran’s “axis of resistance” which includes Shiite groups in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Similar attacks on Israel have been launched from Syria and Lebanon.
Israel vowed to root out and destroy Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, after the Palestinian militants killed 1,400 people and took 240 hostages, according to Israeli authorities, in a major attack on October 7.
Over 11,000 people have since died in retaliatory strikes in Gaza by Israel, according to the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry.
– ‘Lucky shot’ –
The Huthis have previously launched attacks on Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s northern neighbour, and the United Arab Emirates, both key foreign players in the civil war.
But the surprise launches at Israel are their most significant military action since a six-month ceasefire last year heralded a period of calm for a country brought to its knees by years of fighting.
To inflict any damage on Israel, the Huthi projectiles must travel at least 1,600 kilometres (about 1,000 miles) to hit its southernmost tip.
The rebels have ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones capable of traversing that distance, according to Fabian Hinz of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
But given their inaccuracy, “there is no major threat to the Israeli mainland from the Huthis”, Hinz told AFP.
“It’s possible they will get a lucky shot,” he explained, but “there’s very little risk involved”.
But the Huthis could be a headache for other players.
This week, they shot down an American MQ-9 Reaper drone off the coast of Yemen that they said was spying on the country as part of US support for Israel.
– ‘Heightened risks’ –
According to Majid Al-Madhaji, a researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies think tank, the Huthis are also trying to strengthen their hand in peace talks with Saudi Arabia, which is looking to negotiate an exit from Yemen’s war.
They are looking to bolster “their negotiating position” with Riyadh by attacking Israel and US assets in the region, Madhaji said.
The “calculated strategy” is aimed at “putting pressure on the Americans and the British” by threatening their interests in the region to “accelerate an agreement with the Saudis,” he told a virtual panel.
The Huthis also know they don’t need to hit mainland Israel to have an impact.
Nasr al-Din Amer, a Huthi official, told AFP they have “wider, bigger, deeper options and in multiple directions”.
One theatre of escalation could be the Rea Sea, a vital channel for global trade, including the Middle East oil that travels to the Mediterranean and beyond via the Suez Canal.
The Huthis have “the potential to deploy sea mines, carry out armed ship seizures, use anti-ship missiles or disrupt the flow of crude oil exports”, Albasha said.
“They may potentially employ water-borne improved drones… to target Israeli vessels in the Red Sea or ships en route to” the Israeli port of Eilat, he added.
One risk for Yemen is a potential resurgence of its war, if a Huthi missile accidentally causes significant damage in Saudi Arabia, which covers most of the distance to Israel.
“It is important to acknowledge the heightened risks involved,” Albasha said.
“The Saudis may be forced to retaliate if a missile or a drone inadvertently harms Saudi nationals or targets vital installations while seemingly targeting Israel.”