WASHINGTON — Israel has been pressing the Biden administration to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terror group, at the United Arab Emirates’ behest, two officials familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.
The Iran-backed Houthis have been blamed for a series of drone and missile attacks on the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which has ramped up in intensity over the last month.
Amid the uptick in attacks, Abu Dhabi has stepped up its lobbying for the terror designation and has enlisted Israel in the effort.
Jerusalem has agreed, telling Biden officials that reimposing the terror designation would curb Iran’s “reckless” influence in the region, an Israeli official said.
“We’re not doing this only for the Emiratis. We believe such a step is in everyone’s interest,” the official added.
The Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the matter.
Former US president Donald Trump added the Houthis to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations during his final days in office. His successor Joe Biden reversed the decision roughly a month later, as his administration worked without success to jump-start peace talks and wind down the eight-year war in Yemen that has claimed 130,000 lives.
But following the latest Houthi attacks, Biden told reporters in late January that a re-designation of the Houthis was “under consideration.”
A source familiar with the matter said that the National Security Council has warmed to the idea of re-designating the Houthis, while others in the administration remain more hesitant.
Washington is seeking to balance cracking down on the Houthis with addressing the humanitarian emergency that continues to afflict Yemen, where 16 million suffer from food insecurity.
Humanitarian groups argue that their access to areas in Yemen under rebel control will be curtailed if the Houthis are blacklisted.
Supporters of the designation point out that the US has designated Hezbollah and the Taliban as terror groups and has still been able to ensure that aid reaches civilians in Lebanon and Afghanistan.
Israel does not itself label the Houthis a terror group, but Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told the Walla news site last week that Israel should consider the designation, calling the group an “Iranian terror proxy.”
In a letter to cabinet leaders last month, MK Tzvika Hauser from the governing coalition said that designating the Houthis is critical for a country like Israel that seeks to lead the global war on terror. Hauser said such a move would lead other countries to follow suit and would hamper Iranian efforts to destabilize the region.
UN reports on the Houthis point to their use of child soldiers, accusations of rape and torture of women, the planting of land mines and the threatening of Yemen’s miniscule Jewish community, which has dwindled to just a handful of individuals, one of whom is thought to be imprisoned by the group. The slogan of the Houthi movement reads, “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory for Islam.”
With Riyadh leading the coalition of fighters backing the ever-cornered Yemeni government, the Houthi rebels have used drones and missiles to attack Saudi Arabia and oil targets in the Persian Gulf since the civil war began in 2015. Houthi attacks on the UAE have been far more rare though, especially given that Abu Dhabi withdrew its forces fighting on behalf of the Saudi-coalition in 2020.
One of the Houthi attacks on the UAE last month targeted a fuel depot, killing three people and wounding six. American soldiers stationed at Al-Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi launched Patriot interceptor missiles in response — the first time US troops have fired the system in combat since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. The attacks coincided with visits by presidents from South Korea and Israel to the country.
Some analysts have argued that the strikes are meant as an implicit threat that Israel could be within range of the Iranian-supported Houthis as well.
The spillover of Yemen’s years-long war into the UAE puts American troops in the crosshairs of the Houthi attacks — and raises the risk of a regional escalation at a crucial moment of talks in Vienna to potentially restore Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
All sides in the war have been widely accused of abuses, including airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition that claimed civilian lives. The Biden administration early on announced the US would lessen its supporting role to the coalition, and provide Saudi Arabia only with defensive weapons.
AP contributed to this report