Yemen’s Huthi movement attracted global attention by seizing an Israeli-linked ship in the Red Sea and firing rockets toward Israel. They felt obliged to act because of the strong, historically rooted support for Palestinians among the Yemeni people.

Yemeni Huthi fighters fly the Palestinian flag during a parade held in Al-Sabeen Square on December 2, 2023, in Sana’a, Yemen. (Mohammed Hamoud / Getty Images)

On November 19, 2023, soldiers from Yemen’s Ansar Allah movement, known as the Huthis, seized a cargo ship sailing in the Red Sea due to its part ownership by a wealthy Israeli. A few days earlier, Ansar Allah’s military leader had announced on Twitter/X that the Huthis would target ships with any Israeli connection. He warned states to remove their crews from such ships and to avoid handling these vessels.

Within hours, the Huthis had used one of their few helicopters and fast boats to capture the Galaxy Leader and take it back to a location on the Red Sea coast in the vicinity of Hodeida, leaving the usual complex international ownership and management system in the world of shipping to try to negotiate the release of crew and ship.

Since the beginning of the genocidal Israeli assault on Gaza in October, the Huthis have been loud and clear in their support of Palestinians, lobbing a series of missiles and drones in Israel’s direction. The military impact of such attacks has been trivial, as these projectiles have been intercepted either by the US Navy in the Red Sea or Israel’s own defenses.

However, they have succeeded in ensuring that many ships now avoid the Red Sea route, at considerable additional cost. The political and public-relations impact of such attacks is far greater, both internally and internationally.

A Litmus Test

The response of the different Yemeni political factions to the Gaza war reflects their overall political positions today, as has been the case throughout history. Each actor’s response has been an indicator of its overall international policies.

Positions on Palestine are, in the Arab and Muslim world, an effective litmus test of progressive or reactionary alignment.

Positions on Palestine are, in the Arab and Muslim world, an effective litmus test of progressive or reactionary alignment. In Yemen, these responses have also, to a lesser extent, been influenced by the positions of the foreign allies of the respective groups.

One element which has remained stable and steady throughout is the strong commitment of the Yemeni population in support of Palestine and Palestinians. People are shocked by the injustice suffered by Palestinians and the double standards demonstrated by the powerful states that dominate world politics.

During the current crisis, there have been massive demonstrations in support of Palestinians throughout the country, the largest in Huthi-controlled areas where they are encouraged by the regime. Unlike most popular events organized by the Huthis, in this case mobilization is genuine. The thousands who are marching are expressing deep, authentic sympathy for the Palestinians and anger at the Israeli massacres.

Elsewhere, demonstrations have been more spontaneous, with limited involvement from the political groups in control. The divided internationally recognized government (IRG) has expressed sympathy with the Palestinians but done little more.

Aden in particular is an exception with respect to popular expressions of solidarity. Although the city is officially the IRG’s temporary capital of Yemen, it is under the effective control of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a southern separatist faction closely supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) regime.

Reflecting this close relationship and the heavy dependence of the STC on the UAE, there have hardly been any public displays of support for Palestine in Aden. STC leaders are concerned that the UAE might prioritize supporting other factions under their influence, including some opposing separatism.

Yemen and Palestine

As early as 1947, in the then British colony of Aden, one of the first public demonstrations against British rule took the form of a three-day strike against Britain’s pro-Zionist policies in Palestine. The following year, the Mutawakkilite Imamate of Yemen became one of the early members of the United Nations (UN). Its delegation joined five other Arab states whose representatives stormed out of the UN General Assembly chamber when the vote to partition Palestine was passed.

The 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the defeat of Egypt had a direct impact on the situation in the northern Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt had supported and “guided” the republicans in Sana’a who overthrew the Imamate in September 1962. The Egyptian government immediately sent both civilian administrators and military forces to strengthen the new republican regime.

Aden was the site of the first military success against foreign colonialist forces in June 1967 after the humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War.

However, as the Imam had survived the revolution and withdrawn into the mountains with his supporters, a civil war erupted in which up to seventy thousand Egyptian troops participated on the republican side. Egypt was accused of using chemical warfare in the fight against the Imam’s forces.

Egypt’s 1967 defeat at the hands of Israel led to the Khartoum Agreement, whereby Saudi Arabia forced an Egyptian military withdrawal. This left Yemeni factions to bring the war to a conclusion with a compromise between the factions in 1970.

By contrast, Aden was the site of the first military success against foreign colonialist forces in June 1967 after the humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War. At that time, the National Liberation Front (NLF) was fighting to liberate Aden from British colonialism. It took control of part of the city from British forces and held that area for two weeks, providing the Arab world with a victory and helping to counter the widespread despondency in the region.

This was a nationalist and anti-colonial success, forecasting the rise of socialism in the Arabian Peninsula. Despite this achievement, the June War defeat effectively marked the beginning of the end for nationalist republican movements in the region and the later rise of Islamist ones.

The Legacy of 1967

Later that year, the NLF secured independence from Britain and ruled what became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the only Marxist-Leninist state in the Arab world during the Cold War. The closure of the Suez Canal as a result of the June war had a disastrous impact on the new state, which had planned to rely on the significant income from Aden’s port to finance its economy.

The PDRY always supported the Palestinian movements, with a particular emphasis on the left-wing Palestinian organizations.

Through its twenty-seven years of existence, the PDRY always supported the Palestinian movements, with a particular emphasis on the left-wing Palestinian organizations. The NLF itself was a descendant of the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN) established in 1952 under Palestinian leadership in Beirut, alongside the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) of George Habash and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) of Nayef Hawatmeh. The three movements all aligned themselves with the sections of MAN that shifted from pure nationalism to socialism in the course of that decade.

It was only after the Arab League recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), an umbrella of Palestinian movements dominated by Fatah, that the PLO also established separate representation in Aden. Nayef Hawatmeh and George Habash were frequent visitors to Aden, while the PLO chief Yasir Arafat only went there for the first time in 1977. Both Hawatmeh and Habash were involved in mediation between rival factions of the Yemeni Socialist Party, which succeeded the NLF from 1978 onwards.

Within its limited means, the PDRY gave practical support for Palestine. In 1971, it allowed the PFLP to attack an Israeli ship in the Bab al Mandab. Two years later, it closed the Bab al Mandab to Israeli shipping to assist Egypt in the October war.

In 1979, when the Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat recognized Israel and signed the Camp David Accords, the PDRY’s response included the expulsion of Egyptian teachers from the country, with the exception of those from the Egyptian left-wing opposition, communists in particular. Given the country’s dependence on foreign teachers to ensure the development of its education system, they had to be replaced by secondary-school graduates who were sent to teach throughout the country for two years each, in a form of “civil” service replacing military conscription.

Saleh and the Palestinians

The PDRY’s northern neighbor, the YAR, also took a systematically supportive position on the Palestinian issue. However, since the YAR’s political stance was closer to the West than that of the PDRY, the PLO was the main beneficiary.

The regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who led the YAR from 1978, formally supported Palestinian resolutions at the Arab League and the UN. But its main foreign policy concerns were elsewhere. Despite his support for Palestine at the time of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace accord, Saleh accepted US arms deliveries in his fight against the “communist” PDRY. These weapons were sent to the YAR via Saudi Arabia, bypassing the need for approval by the US congress.

The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was an opportunity for the leaders of the YAR and PDRY to act jointly at a time when tensions were high between them.

The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was an opportunity for the leaders of the YAR and PDRY to act jointly at a time when tensions were high between them. Saleh and the PDRY leader Ali Nasser Mohammed visited Saudi Arabia and Syria in August and then dispatched teams of ministers to other Arab capitals. They also informed Arafat of their willingness to receive Palestinian fighters.

These fighters started to arrive in August 1982 in both parts of Yemen after the expulsion of the PLO and its military forces from Beirut. In each capital, they set up military camps. Both states also hosted civilian Palestinians who were given full and equal rights with Yemenis.

The 1983 internal conflict between rival Palestinian movements provided a further opportunity for cooperation between otherwise rival Arab leaders. This included a meeting involving Arafat, the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, and both Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ali Nasser Mohammed.

Saleh himself demonstrated his nationalist positions on various occasions and was genuinely committed to the Palestinian cause, occasionally demonstrating clear independence from his Western allies. His stance on Palestine is an important indicator of his fundamental nationalist beliefs.

After Unification

After Yemeni unification in 1990, the Saleh regime continued to recognize and support the state of Palestine and cooperate with the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, despite Arafat’s death and the PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s increasing lack of credibility at home. Saleh personally made a number of statements deploring the lack of support for Palestinians from Arab regimes, notably at the 2000 Arab summit at Sharm el Sheikh.

The ambiguities of governmental positions were manifested by simultaneous official Yemeni backing for Hamas, the PLO, and Lebanon’s Hizbollah.

Yemen’s simultaneous official backing for Hamas, the PLO, and Lebanon’s Hizbollah reflected the ambiguities of the government’s position. Palestinian leaders from all factions visited Sana’a frequently, including Arafat (who was provided with a “palace” by Saleh), Abbas in 2006, and the Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in 2008.

Encouraging civil society support for Palestine, the unified regime established the Al Aqsa Association — which had branches throughout the country as early as 1991 — and the Kanaan Society for Palestine. Both organizations held meetings annually for Jerusalem Day and collected funds to support Al Aqsa Mosque and protect Islamic monuments in Palestine.

With the outbreak of civil war in Yemen from 2015 and the role of foreign states in the conflict, the situation has changed. The Saudi- and Emirati-backed factions of the IRG have continued to offer support for the PA based in Ramallah, while the Huthis have been increasingly vocal in their backing for the more radical Palestinian movements.

The anti-Israeli and anti-US policies of Ansar Allah are evident in the movement’s main slogan, two of its five lines being “Death to Israel” and “Curse on the Jews.” Huthi ideology is limited in scope: its main element concerns the insistence that descendants of the Prophet are the only ones entitled to rule. In Ansar Allah’s foreign policy, opposition to the United States and Israel are the only explicitly stated positions.

An Unmissable Opportunity

This meant that the opportunity presented by the Israeli genocide in Gaza was one which the Huthis could not ignore if they were to retain any semblance of credibility among the people they rule. In addition, given the popularity of the Palestinian issue in Yemen, it has helped them increase their otherwise diminishing popularity.

The main impact of the Huthi position on Palestine today is on the movement’s own reputation.

It is also a wonderful recruitment opportunity for Ansar Allah’s armed forces. They have already opened camps for training volunteers to fight in Palestine and called for the right of passage for their troops to go there — something that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which stands between Yemen and Israel/Palestine, is extremely unlikely to provide.

The likelihood of Huthi missiles reaching Israel is low and the main impact of the Huthi position on Palestine today is on the movement’s own reputation. In Yemen and the wider Arab and Muslim world, ordinary people are noticing that the Huthi movement is the only one taking action against Israel.

Although Ansar Allah is viewed as a nonstate actor, in practice it acts like a state, controlling the capital and the formal ministries as well as ruling two-thirds of the country’s population. Within Yemen, even those who oppose the Huthis have noted their active support for the Palestinians by contrast with the weakness of IRG responses to the situation, let alone those of the IRG’s backers, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Ongoing launches of missiles and drones against Israeli-related shipping in the Red Sea keep the Huthis in world headlines and are a major irritant to the United States and other pro-Israeli powers. While militarily insignificant, Huthi attacks do have a meaningful impact as ships that are at risk of being targeted are diverting their routes away from the Red Sea at considerably increased cost, while US naval forces are active intercepting Huthi projectiles.

US embarrassment at this turn of events is great. On the one hand, Washington is determined to bring the war in Yemen to an end, a policy decision from the earliest days of the Biden administration. To achieve this goal, it is pushing for the deal currently under discussion between Saudi Arabia and the Huthis. On the other hand, any failure to directly respond to Huthi attacks in the Red Sea is humiliating in the context of the Biden administration’s indefatigable support for Israel.

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