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Houthis have fired missiles, drones at Israel. How big a threat are they?

The Houthi movement in Yemen shot down a United States drone on Wednesday night, more than a week after effectively declaring war on Israel, raising fears of a regional escalation.

The move by the Iran-linked group, which controls vast swaths of Yemen, comes as Tel Aviv continues to bomb the Gaza Strip, killing more than 10,500 Palestinians, more than 4,300 of them children.

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The Yemeni group has launched three rounds of attacks on Israel since the October 7 Hamas attack that killed at least 1,405 Israelis.

So, what have the Houthi attacks – and the response – looked like so far, where does Iran fit in, and where could things go from here?

What has happened so far?

Yahya Saree, a military spokesman for the Houthis, announced on October 31 that the movement launched a “large number” of rockets, ballistic missiles and drones towards Israel.

More strikes would follow “until the Israeli aggression stops” and Palestinians are “victorious”, he said.

None of the projectiles, which were fired at the Red Sea tourist resort of Eilat, are believed to have reached Israel, either having been destroyed by defence systems or falling short.

Israel said it destroyed a drone over the Red Sea. For the first time since the outbreak of the war with Hamas, Israel used its “Arrow” defence system which is designed to take out ballistic missiles outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, according to its military.

On October 27, drones had caused explosions in two Egyptian Red Sea towns, which are located near the Israeli border. Tel Aviv had said at the time that the Houthis had launched drones and missiles intended for Israel.

The United States military had said in late October that a navy warship in the northern Red Sea intercepted projectiles launched by the Houthis, potentially towards Israel.

Is this the ‘new front’ Iran warned about?

As Israeli strikes continue to pound Gaza and kill civilians, Iran has repeatedly warned that if they don’t stop, “new fronts” could be opened in the war by the “resistance axis” – a network of political and armed groups aligned to Iran.

Tehran backs the Houthis in Yemen, Shia armed groups in Iraq, the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and various Palestinian factions.

Iran, however, has consistently maintained that members of the axis act on their own accord – as Hamas did on October 7.

The Houthi movement, also known as Ansarallah, has been in control of large parts of Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa, since late 2014. For the past nine years, the group has been at war with an internationally recognised Yemeni government that was backed by a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

The fighting in Yemen has decreased markedly in recent months as Houthis and Riyadh kicked off peace talks in the wake of Iran and Saudi Arabia restoring diplomatic relations earlier this year.

The Houthis’ entry into the war with Hamas could be concerning for Israel as it is already engaged in border fighting with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Skirmishes between the two have only gradually intensified, and Hezbollah has been increasingly tapping into its secretive arsenal as the two hit deeper into each other’s territories.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah did not fully commit the group to the war in a highly anticipated speech on Friday but said that remains a real possibility depending on what Israel and its Western allies do next.

In a rare announcement on Monday, the US said it has brought an Ohio-class submarine to the region but did not disclose the name or the exact location.

Did the Houthis go all-in?

The Houthis, who have a history of proudly displaying their latest military achievements and had a major parade in late September, released a video of launching many missiles and drones after their initial announcement.

Shouts of “death to Israel” and “death to America” can be heard as ballistic missiles are launched into the atmosphere.

It is unclear whether all the footage released is new. But the footage appeared to show that the Houthis used a variant of their Zolfaghar mid-range ballistic missile, the Quds cruise missile and the Samad drone.

They are all based on similar Iranian models, which are known by different names. There is no reliable information on exactly which variants were used or what their true ranges are, but some of the Houthi projectiles may theoretically have the capability of reaching Israel.

What the Houthis did not use was the purportedly more superior ballistic missile known as the Toofan, which they recently unveiled and has a longer range.

They also possess so-called suicide drones, including one believed to be based on the Shahed 136 Iranian drone, which the West says has been extensively used by Russia in the war in Ukraine despite Tehran maintaining the supply to Moscow was not meant for the war.

So, it appears that the Houthis have yet to fully delve into their varied arsenal of projectiles, which also includes a host of anti-ship missiles.

Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, told Al Jazeera that the Houthis are unlikely to become full participants in this war, not least of all because they are roughly 2,000 kilometres (1,240 miles) away from Israel.

He said if the conflict escalates into a regional war and Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups fully join in, the Houthis will most likely keep launching missiles and drones at Israel. But the situation could be different then.

“If the Houthis attack Israel with drones and missiles on their own, Israeli air defences can most likely intercept them. If, however, the Houthis join multiple other Iran-backed groups – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, possibly various militias in Syria – in attacking Israel simultaneously, then there is a higher chance that Israeli air defences could be overwhelmed. Such a multi-front war is the nightmare scenario for Israel.”

How could Israel respond?

The Israeli military said last week it has deployed missile boats in the Red Sea as reinforcements. And it has the full backing of a host of US warships in the region, which could protect its southern coasts.

Tzachi Hanegbi, the Israeli national security adviser, said the Houthi attacks were “intolerable” but declined to elaborate on what exactly an Israeli response might look like.

Just as some of the Houthi missiles appear to have fallen short of their marks due to the relatively long distance between Yemen and Israel, it could also be potentially costly and complicated for Israel to respond with sustained aerial strikes.

For now, it appears Tel Aviv wants to make sure its southern coasts are protected. The deployment of the missile boats could also indicate that Israel may be concerned about the possibility of Houthi attacks on Israeli ships passing through the Red Sea.

Juneau, from the University of Ottawa, said Israel currently has little to gain by attacking the Houthis, as it could risk an escalation that it wishes to avoid.

“In addition, the Houthis have emerged more powerful from years of air strikes by Saudi Arabia; beyond sending a message, it would be difficult for Israeli retaliation to hurt the Houthis,” he said.

For years, Western officials and a number of Arab counterparts have accused Iran of providing arms, combat training and funding for the Houthis, which it denies. Tehran, however, publicly backs the Houthi movement as a member of the axis which supports Palestinians.

Juneau said the Palestinian cause is important to the Houthis, as they have at least partly built their reputation by opposing Israel and the US, but the movement’s status as an increasingly important member of the Iran-backed resistance axis matters more for the current war.

“By sending missile and drone strikes against Israel, the Houthis are aiming to send a message of support for Hamas and a signal to Israel that it can now reach it, and that they will not hesitate to use this capability in the future,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera

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