Houthi Militia Threatens to Respond to U.S. Airstrikes as Crisis in Gaza Grows
Houthi Militia Threatens to Respond to U.S. Airstrikes as Crisis in Gaza Grows

The twin specters of a widening regional war and intensified suffering of civilians loomed over the Middle East on Saturday, after the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen threatened to respond to American airstrikes and a senior U.N. official warned that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza was hurtling toward famine.

An American missile strike, launched from a warship in the Red Sea, hit a radar station outside the Yemeni capital, Sana, early Saturday. The solitary strike came about 24 hours after a much wider barrage of U.S.-led strikes against nearly 30 sites in northern and western Yemen that were intended to deter Houthi attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Houthi officials tried to brush off the latest assault, saying it would have little impact on their ability to continue those attacks. Their stated goal is to punish Israel for blocking humanitarian aid into Gaza — though Yemeni analysts say the crisis also presents the Houthis with a welcome distraction from rising criticism at home. Two U.S. officials cautioned on Saturday that even after hitting more than 60 missile and drone targets with more than 150 precision-guided munitions, the U.S.-led airstrikes damaged or destroyed only about 20 to 30 percent of the Houthis’ offensive capability, much of which is mounted on mobile platforms and can be readily moved or hidden.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal military assessments, said that U.S. analysts have been rushing to catalog potential Houthi targets, but that doing so has proved challenging. Western intelligence agencies have not spent significant time or resources in recent years collecting data on Houthi air defenses, command hubs or munitions depots, they said.

The greater risk from the air attacks is likely borne by ordinary Yemenis, whose impoverished nation has been crushed by years of civil war, and who now face a high-stakes confrontation that imperils a fragile 20-month truce.

Some 21 million Yemenis, or two-thirds of the population, rely on aid to survive, in what the United Nations has called one of the world’s worst humanitarian calamities — a dubious distinction now shared by Gaza.

In northern Gaza, where a crippling three-month Israeli siege has hit hardest, corpses are left in the road and starving residents stop aid trucks “in search of anything they can get to survive,” Martin Griffiths, the top U.N. aid official, told the United Nations Security Council on Friday. Saying that the risk of famine in Gaza was “growing by the day,” he blamed Israel for repeated delays and denials of permission to humanitarian convoys bringing aid to the area.

Since Jan. 1, just three of 21 planned convoys intended for northern Gaza, carrying food, medicine and other essential supplies, have received Israeli permission to enter the area, a U.N. spokesman said on Thursday. More supplies have been distributed in southern Gaza, near the two border crossings that are open during limited hours, but aid workers say vastly more than that is needed to meaningfully help Gazan civilians.

Qatar is mediating talks over a proposal for Israel to allow more medicines into Gaza in exchange for prescription medicines being sent to Israeli hostages held by Hamas, officials have said.

Famine experts say the proportion of Gaza residents at risk of famine is greater than anywhere since a United Nations-affiliated body began measuring extreme hunger 20 years ago. Scholars say it has been generations since the world has seen food deprivation on such a scale in war.

The arrival of bitterly cold winter weather has exacerbated the struggle to survive, Mr. Griffiths said. Much of Gaza’s population has jammed into overcrowded, deteriorating shelters in the south, with limited access to clean water and where aid workers warn that disease is spreading fast.

In response to questions, Israel’s government on Friday denied it was obstructing aid, saying its permission was contingent on the security situation, the security of its troops and its efforts to prevent supplies from “falling into the hands” of Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza. Israel launched its assault on Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack in which Israeli officials say at least 1,200 people were killed and another 240 were taken back to Gaza as hostages.

Since then, Israeli attacks, often using American-supplied bombs, have killed more than 23,000 people in Gaza, according to the Gaza health authorities. At least 1.9 million people, or 85 percent of the population, have been forced from their homes, according to the U.N.

Despite growing global criticism, and calls from the Biden administration to take greater care, the pace of Israeli strikes has not relented, and has even quickened in areas where Palestinians had been ordered to flee for their own safety, Mr. Griffiths said.

One strike on Friday on a home in Rafah, near the southernmost tip of Gaza, killed 10 people including several children, Palestinian media reported. At least 700,000 Palestinians have fled to the area around Rafah, along the border with Egypt, hoping for safety. Even there it is elusive.

“There is no safe place in Gaza,” Mr. Griffiths said. “Dignified human life is a near impossibility.”

Large protests calling for an end to the Israeli assault on Gaza, tied to the 100th day of the war, were expected across the globe on Saturday in cities including London, Dublin, Washington, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.

In Israel, though, the focus was on the 136 hostages believed to still be held in Gaza. Families and supporters of the people taken captive on Oct. 7 planned to hold an overnight vigil in Tel Aviv on Saturday night. Among the hostages are about a dozen people in their 70s and 80s and a 1-year-old baby. Frustrated relatives have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to free them.

Like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis have been supported, funded and armed by Iran for many years. American officials say Iran provided the intelligence used by the Houthis to target ships 28 times in the Red Sea since mid-November, causing more than 2,000 other ships to divert onto a much longer route around Africa.

The Houthi response so far to the American and British airstrikes on Friday, which were supported by Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands, has been minimal: a single missile that dropped into the Red Sea about 500 yards from a passing ship on Friday. The maritime security firm Ambrey identified the ship as a Panama-flagged tanker carrying Russian oil — an apparent mistake, as Russia, an ally of Iran, had denounced the American-led strikes against the Houthis.

Still, the impact of the crisis on global trade is already being felt. In a Friday podcast after the Western strikes, Lloyd’s List Intelligence, a shipping data company, said it was seeing an increasing number of container ships diverting to an alternate route around the Cape of Good Hope, which typically adds 10 days and about 3,300 nautical miles to the trip.

Tesla and Volvo said they would be forced to pause production at some car plants in Europe, while Ikea warned that some supplies may run low.

Many Yemen experts were skeptical that this round of U.S. strikes would force the Houthis to back down, and said the group could even be strengthened. Since 2014 the Houthis have endured heavy bombardment by Saudi warplanes armed by the United States, only to emerge as the de facto government in northern Yemen.

A confrontation with the United States strengthens the Houthis’ ties to Iran, plays to popular sympathies with Palestinians and could help to quell dissent, experts say: As a shaky peace has taken root in Yemen in the past 18 months, their economic failures have become more evident, and internal opposition has grown.

“War is good for the Houthis right now,” said Gregory D. Johnsen, a Yemen expert at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

The Houthis, for their part, warned that more assaults on Red Sea shipping were coming, as well as a more forceful response to the United States.

“Washington will deeply regret its provocative practices in the Red and Arabian Seas, as will everyone who gets involved with them,” Hezam al-Asad, a member of the Houthi political bureau, said in a phone interview after the latest American strike.

The only way for the United States to stop Houthi attacks on shipping, he said, was “an end to the war in Gaza.”

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York, Eric Schmitt from Washington, Roni Caryn Rabin and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem, and Anushka Patil from London.