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Yemen's reaction to the Houthi attacks on ships that have drawn U.S. strikes

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

And now to Yemen, where Houthi rebels continue to fire missiles at commercial ships in the Red Sea and demand a cease-fire in Gaza. Retaliatory airstrikes by the U.S. over the past few weeks against Houthi targets are not stopping them. Meanwhile, civilians in Yemen, who recently lived through a bloody civil war, worry they'll be caught in the middle. NPR's Fatma Tanis reports.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: For the first time in nearly two years since the civil war came to a stalemate, bombs are falling on northern Yemen.

AHMED ALWAZIR: Before the airstrikes started in Yemen, we had felt safe.

TANIS: That's Ahmed Alwazir in Sanaa. He says people are now reliving trauma from the Saudi strikes a few years ago. His own children can't sleep at night when they hear American bombs dropping on Houthi targets nearby.

ALWAZIR: Yemenis in general feel that there is a parallel between what Israel is doing in Gaza and what the U.S. is doing in Yemen.

TANIS: So far, there have been no civilian casualties from the strikes. Still, Alwazir says he hears a lot of support for what the Houthis are doing.

ALWAZIR: For Yemenis, I believe Gaza is the only thing that unites them. I have heard from people who are against the Houthis that right now they might support the Houthis because of what they are doing in the Red Sea.

TANIS: The Houthis were tribal mountain rebels not long ago but have come to rule most of Yemen's population after they overthrew the government in 2014 and took the capital, Sanaa. They are allied with Iran and aren't popular with Yemenis because of corruption, heavy taxation and bad governance. Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen is a senior researcher with the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, and she says recent events sparked a big debate in Yemen. There are many who support what the Houthis are doing but also some who accuse them of hypocrisy.

MAYSAA SHUJA AL-DEEN: Because they are contradicting themselves how they are calling for freedom of a people and they oppress their own people and how they are calling for lifting the siege or blockade on Gaza and they are besieging a city of 2 million people in Taiz in the middle of Yemen.

TANIS: And concerns are growing that if this goes on, it'll get harder for Yemenis to access food and aid. The country is experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The Houthi attacks, which disrupt one of the world's busiest shipping corridors, have stumped Western leaders. The Houthis film and post propaganda videos that have gone viral. Shuja Al-Deen says while the Palestinian issue has been a foundational part of Houthi ideology, these attacks also play into another core goal.

SHUJA AL-DEEN: They always believe their role exceeds Yemen, and they don't recognize the national borders. And the higher cause or the optimum goal - it is to defeat the Israelis and the Americans in the region, in particular in Palestine and liberating Palestine.

TANIS: This week Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi warned of further escalation. Alex Stark is an associate policy researcher with the RAND Corporation. She says the Biden administration is in a tricky spot, trying to respond to Houthi attacks while pushing for a peaceful end to the Yemeni conflict, which, before the war in Gaza, had appeared close.

ALEX STARK: The idea behind what the U.S. and the U.K. are doing is to try to degrade the Houthis' ability to continue to launch these kinds of attacks by attacking, you know, missile sites and satellites.

TANIS: But it's not going to be easy, says Shuja Al-Deen. The Houthis inherited most of their military capability from the Yemeni army. They have some weapons smuggled from Iran, and they also make their own. At best, she says, the U.S. might be able to slow the Houthis down but not for long. Fatma Tanis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Fatma Tanis