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Houthi drone attack on Emirates a wake-up call for Israel

“Israel has a lot of experience, knowledge and technology on missile defense. Israel can learn from what happens, and they can learn from Israel,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies

Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen struck the United Arab Emirates on Monday with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and possibly ballistic missiles. Uzi Rubin of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), and founder and first director of the Israel Ministry of Defense’s Missile Defense Organization, told JNS that the attack—a distance of 1,400 kilometers (869 miles)—is “a leap” and Israel better be paying attention.

“This is a first. They managed to fly something 1,400 kilometers,” said Rubin, who helped develop the Arrow, Israel’s first missile-defense shield. He noted that the Houthi drone strike on Sept. 14, 2019, which struck Saudi oil-processing facilities at Abqaiq and was launched from Iran, covered a distance of only about 600 to 700 kilometers (about 370 to 435 miles).

“So 1,400 kilometers is a leap in demonstrated capabilities,” he said.

The attack hit two sites—the Abu Dhabi International Airport and an industrial district in the southwestern part of the capital. Three were killed and six wounded when three gas tankers exploded. The airport suffered minor damage, closing only briefly. The Houthis said their attack was in retaliation for an attack last week in Yemen by Emirati-backed forces, supported by Saudi airpower, which led to the fall of the oil-rich region of Shabwa, the first significant Houthi military loss in years.

The Houthis have claimed drone and missile attacks on the UAE before, but this is the first time Abu Dhabi admitted to it. It’s possible the UAE was struck more than twice, said Rubin. (A Houthi spokesman claimed that the group launched five ballistic missiles and “a large number” of UAVs.) Rubin said it’s in the Houthis’ interest to play up the attack, just as it is in Abu Dhabi’s to downplay it.

The point, he stressed, isn’t how many missiles and drones reached Abu Dhabi but that they reached it at all.

Rubin, who is now a private citizen, said he can’t say for certain that Israel’s defense establishment isn’t paying attention to the growing threat, but if they’re not, they had better start preparing a “defense against UAVs from Yemen.”

He said the distance from Yemen to Eilat—Israel’s southernmost city—is about 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles) starting from the capital of Sana’a. The Houthis have probably maxed out the range of their ballistic missiles (although he noted there’s always the chance Iran will give them bigger ones). The story is different with UAVs; there, he said, “it’s a matter of pouring more gas into the gas tank.”

Asked if the Houthis could become a southern version of the Iran-backed terror group that has become the most powerful presence in Lebanon, Rubin said that they are already a regional threat given their proximity to and ability to wreak havoc on the Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab Straits—navigation chokepoints that together account for a sizeable percentage of the shipping of the world’s oil, gas and merchandise.

‘Houthis will remain security problem for years to come’

Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), agreed, telling JNS that “the Houthis already are ‘Hezbollah South.’ ” He sees the threat to Israel as three-pronged: 1) A ballistic-missile or drone attack targeting southern parts of Israel; 2) disruption to Israel’s trade, as most of it goes through the Bab al-Mandeb Straits; and, 3) an attack staged abroad against Israeli interests, embassies and the like.

However, Guzansky doesn’t see a Houthi attack on Israel in the near future, as that would invite Israeli retaliation, and few, if any, would believe Houthi claims that Israel attacked first.

“The Houthis will be seen as the aggressor and held accountable. You’ll see the world standing beside Israel. It will be a different ballgame,” he said.

He noted that the Houthi attack on the UAE was, in a sense, rational. “The Houthis attacked the UAE because its forces attacked their strongholds. So it was logical for them to respond and try to deter further attacks,” he said.

The ones who most fear the Houthis are not the Israelis, but the Saudis, he said. “Even if some kind of settlement will be reached, the Houthis will remain a security problem for years to come. The Houthis have come a long way in the last seven years in terms of military equipment and war experience.”

Guzansky said it’s in Israel’s interests to help both the Saudis and the Emirates with their military defense. “The Saudis are being targeted on a weekly basis by the Houthis, and Israel has a lot of experience, knowledge and technology on missile defense. Israel can learn from what happens, and they can learn from Israel,” he said.

As to the possibility that the Houthis will be completely defeated, he doesn’t see that as likely, given that Shi’ites make up about 35% of Yemen’s population. Still, he said the recent successful attack by Emirati-backed forces on Shabwa could bring negotiations closer.

“The reason that you haven’t seen an agreement in Yemen is that the Houthis didn’t want to compromise because they had the upper hand on the ground. They’ve been offered the best deals—actually everything they wanted the Saudis agreed to—but they said, ‘No, we can get more. We can get control of more vital and strategic places.’ Only now they’re feeling the pressure,” he said. “That’s why they fired at the Emirates.”

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