By Girish Linganna
Israel has reinforced its air defences in the Red Sea region using Navy missile boats due to multiple missile and drone attacks by Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, the army announced on Wednesday. The deployment of these vessels took place on Tuesday, as it was deemed necessary in response to the situation. This move is part of heightened defence measures in the area, following an incident where a missile and two drones were launched from Yemen towards Israel.
An extra target was successfully intercepted early on Wednesday near Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city along the Red Sea. Eilat, a popular resort city typically inhabited by around 50,000 residents, has seen a significant increase in population due to the arrival of tens of thousands of evacuees from Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip and towns at the Lebanese border. These areas have been subjected to heavy bombardment in recent weeks.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has verified the presence of multiple tiers of air defence systems in the region to safeguard against Houthi assaults. Additionally, the US military maintains a deployment in the Red Sea area and successfully intercepted several Houthi missiles and drones bound for Israel just two weeks ago. IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari issued a warning, stating that Israel might retaliate against these attacks, perceived by Jerusalem as being orchestrated by Iran.
During a press briefing on Wednesday morning, Hagari emphasised that Israel was currently operating at an extremely high level of defence readiness and had expanded its naval presence, which not only offered substantial protection in maritime areas, but also possessed offensive capabilities. Hagari also mentioned that, on Tuesday, the Arrow air defence system was effectively used to intercept a surface-to-surface missile fired by the Houthis, marking the first operational use of this long-range system during the ongoing conflict with Hamas.
The Arrow and Iron Dome are both Israeli air defence systems, but serve different purposes. The Arrow is designed to intercept ballistic missiles, including long-range threats from such countries as Iran. It operates at higher altitudes, targeting missiles in space. On the other hand, the Iron Dome is tailored for short-range threats, such as rockets and artillery shells, with a focus on intercepting them in the lower atmosphere.
The systems also differ in terms of interception altitude, range and the types of threats they can effectively counter. In essence, the Arrow deals with long-range ballistic missiles, while the Iron Dome handles short-range, lower-altitude threats.
Yemen’s Houthi militia, known for their slogan, “Death to America and Death to Israel; Curse the Jews and Victory to Islam”, has claimed responsibility for at least three separate attacks since Hamas’s assault on southern Israel on October 7, resulting in a tragic loss of approximately 1,400 lives, primarily civilians. The group’s spokesperson, Yahya Saria, stated that these attacks were carried out in response to the demands of the Yemeni people.
In a video released on Wednesday, the group showcased missiles and drones launched from within Yemen towards Israel. However, none of these projectiles reached their intended targets and images on social media revealed the wreckage of one such cruise missile in southern Jordan, near the Saudi border.
In the previous week, two drones originating from Yemen struck cities in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, with one causing injuries to six individuals near a hospital in the border town of Taba. Additional projectiles launched from Yemen towards Israel were intercepted and neutralized by the US and Saudi Arabia.
Israel accuses the Houthis of operating at the behest of Iran, in conjunction with other regional entities attempting to divert Israel’s military focus away from the conflict in Gaza. “They’re trying to distract us from the Gaza conflict. Nevertheless, our primary focus remains on the fighting in Gaza,” stated Hagari.
Despite persistent denials from Iran, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that it has been supplying the Houthi rebels with firearms, rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and various other weapons via maritime routes. Independent experts, Western countries and UN investigators have successfully traced components found on other intercepted ships back to Iran.
Originating from a clan with roots in Yemen’s northwestern Saada province, the Houthis are adherents of the Zaidi branch of Shi’ite Islam, shared by approximately 25% of the country’s population. Following the unification of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1990, the Houthis initiated a series of rebellions, ultimately seizing control of Sana’a, the capital, in 2014, sparking an ongoing civil conflict.
In 2011, a wave of protests during the Arab Spring led to the ousting of Yemen’s ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had held power for three decades. Following a transition agreement supported by the US, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi assumed leadership and negotiations were on for a constitutional assembly and new elections. However, the Houthi group opposed a proposed federal system that emerged from these talks.
In 2014, the government reduced fuel subsidies, prompting protests, and the Houthis displaced Hadi’s government, which still maintains authority in the eastern part of the country. Iran, a predominantly Shi’ite nation, provided assistance to the Houthis, while Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Sunni country, supported the government. The ongoing conflict has inflicted severe hardships on ordinary Yemenis, who describe life as nearly unbearable due to airstrikes, economic collapse and worsening hunger.
The Houthis initiated frequent attacks on Saudi Arabia following its intervention in Yemen’s conflict in 2015. Experts suggest that the Houthis receive training, technical knowhow and progressively advanced weaponry—such as drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles—from Iran and its Lebanese partner, the Shi’ite militant group, Hezbollah.
The Houthis have shown solidarity with the Palestinian cause and issued warnings to Israel. They assert the possession of a liquid-propellant missile called Toufan, which could potentially have a range of 1,350 to 1,950 kilometres, a distance that could, in theory, bring Israel within reach, although with some limitations. Yemen and Israel, with Saudi Arabia in between, are approximately 1,580 kilometres apart at their closest proximity.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations have made efforts to broker a lasting ceasefire in the eight-year-long conflict. The Houthis expressed their willingness to participate in political settlement discussions led by the UN, with conditions. However, the negotiations hit a roadblock when a divide emerged between Saudi Arabia and its oil-rich Gulf neighbour, the UAE, which started backing factions competing for control of the country. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)