April 22, 2015 | Politico

When Israel Helped Yemen’s Shiites

Yemen’s Houthi rebels accuse Israel of standing behind the Saudi-led military campaign launched against them in February. The charge is not unusual—blaming Israel for the Mideast’s sundry ills is a timehonored regional pastime. For once, though, the allegation has some historical basis: During Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war, the Jewish state airlifted a steady supply of money and arms to the ruling monarchy. On one point, however, the Houthis’ accusation falls flat: That monarchy actually represented the same Shiite tribes from whom today’s rebels spring.

At the time, Yemen was divided—as it was for most of its history—between the absolute monarchy of the Mutawakelite dynasty in the north, and a British protectorate in the south centered on the strategic port of Aden. The Mutawakelites were Zaydis—a sub-minority within the Islamic minority of Shiism who consider Muhammad’s great-great grandson Zayd the rightful heir to the prophet’s mantle. (Zaydis are commonly known as Fivers, because they deem Zayd the fifth and final leader of the faithful, as opposed to the majority of Shiites who recognize a chain of 12.)

In 1962, nationalist army officers led by Gen. Abdullah al-Sallal—and inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s anti-monarchist coup in Egypt a decade prior—staged a coup against Imam (King) Muhammad al-Badr. Britain, fearing unrest in its neighboring colony, backed the royalists, as did the fellow monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and a 16-year-old state of Israel.


At the time the Jewish state’s chief antagonist was not, as today, the Shiite theocracy of Iran but its own neighbor—and the Arab world’s largest state—Egypt. In one of the oddities of the Cold War (think Cubans in Angola), Nasser had sent 70,000 troops—a third of his army—to Yemen to fight to a blood-drenched stalemate that historians have dubbed “Egypt’s Vietnam.” Of the 100,000 to 200,000 men killed in the war, some 25,000 were Egyptian.

Two years into the war, a disillusioned Egyptian pilot defected to Israel, and told his interrogators that his fellow Egyptians were using chemical weapons in Yemen. Then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir feared Israel would be next, and hoped that bogging down the Egyptians in a faraway country would keep them too busy to threaten her own.

British intelligence had for months sought Israeli support for the royalists, and soon found a willing partner. On the night of May 26, 1964, Imam Badr called a strategy session of tribal leaders who were backing the monarchy, including one Sheikh Hassan al-Houthi, the patriarch of the Houthi tribe that today leads the fight against Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Around midnight, the assembled dignitaries heard a plane hum overhead and saw 14 parachutes drop, prompting one elder to marvel, “Look! Even God is helping the imam.” The plane—carrying military materiel, medical supplies and money—was flown by Israeli pilots.

Operation Porcupine, as it became known, included 14 airlifts of Israel’s largest transport plane, the Boeing C-97 “Stratofreighter,” over two years. Airlifts were complemented by the deployment of Mossad intelligence agents, one of whom was captured by Yemeni rebelshanded over to Egypt and returned home in a prisoner swap after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Then—as now—the intervention was multilateral, involving British intelligence, logistics and flight crewsSaudi airspace and a refueling base in French Somaliland (today’s Djibouti). Decades later, an Israeli pilot recalled flying one of the airlifts alongside a British adviser: “He suggested that since we were already there, maybe we would also bomb the airport in Sanaa,” North Yemen’s capital. Yithzak Rabin, the Israeli military’s chief of staff and a future prime minister, declined.

As Israeli leaders had anticipated, Egypt’s Yemen adventure caused it to hemorrhage blood and treasure. The Egyptians’ devastation in the Six-Day War of 1967 was due in large part to their fatigue and losses from Yemen, and to Israel’s close observation of their tactics in that war. Egypt withdrew from Yemen by the end of the year.

A 1970 peace treaty ended North Yemen’s civil war but birthed a republic that excluded the Mutawekelite royals (Imam Badr ended up in Britain, riding out his years in a modest home in Kent). North Yemen became a Soviet-allied, strongman-led military state, and—as if to feed later Houthi conspiracy theories—chose a certain Abdul Rahman al-Iryani to succeed Sallal as president. Iryani was born Jewish (his birth name was Zekharia), had been forcibly converted to Islam upon his parents’ death and had relatives living in Israel.

South Yemen, for its part, exchanged colonialism for communism, shaking off the British and rebranding itself the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.

In 1990 north and south joined to create the Republic of Yemen we know today. Union, however, has not bred unity: Today’s Yemen is roiled not only by the Houthi insurgency but by revolts by southern secessionist bitter-enders and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest country, and vies with Syria, Iraq and Libya as its most unstable.

For Egypt’s part, it has eagerly joined the coalition against the Houthis, contributing naval ships and aircraft and pledging ground troops if necessary. Speaking at the Arab League summit in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh last month, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi presented the campaign in apocalyptic terms: “This [Arab] nation, in its darkest hour, had never faced a challenge to its existence and a threat to its identity like the one it’s facing now. … This threatens our national security and we cannot ignore its consequences for Arab identity.” The comments were almost certainly aimed at the Houthis’ primary patron, Iran.

As for Israel, the Islamic Republic long ago assumed the role, once occupied by Egypt, of its archenemy. And as for the Houthis, the succor Israel once provided them wins the country little credit today. Of the five lines of their oft-touted slogan, two are devoted to vilifying Israel and Jews:

God is great
Death to America
Death to Israel
A curse on the Jews
Victory to Islam!

Houthi ire for Israel may be a mere sop to their benefactor Iran, or a nod to the one sentiment on which millions of Sunnis and Shiites can agree. Regardless, Israel’s leadership cannot be pleased that since the Shiite rebels’ capture of Sanaa in September, Iran-backed forces now control four Arab capitals.

The key roles now played by Israel’s partners—Saudi ArabiaEgypt and Jordan—in Yemen, and the Jewish state’s record of covertly undermining Iranian interests, suggests Israeli involvement in the Yemeni war can’t be ruled out. After all, details of Israel’s intervention in the country’s last civil war surfaced only decades later.

Perhaps this time, as last, the Houthis know something the rest of us don’t.

Correction: An earler version of this story stated that Golda Meir was then Israel's prime minister when she was in fact foreign minister at the time.

Oren Kessler is deputy director for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Find him on Twitter: @OrenKessler