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Still Facing US-Backed Famine, Yemenis Want to Save Gaza From the Same Fate

Millions in Yemen, where 80 percent are food insecure, protest every Friday in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

A Yemeni boy brandishes a janbiya, a traditional curved dagger, during a march in support of Palestinians in the capital Sanaa, on March 15, 2024.

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Every Friday since October 20, 2023, protesters in Yemen have hit the streets to protest the war on Gaza. This solidarity comes as no surprise given Yemenis have long experienced war and famine. In a similar show of solidarity, in November Yemen-based Houthi rebels started targeting ships in the Red Sea to put pressure on Israel to end its war on Gaza. The Houthis, initially a rebel group aligned with Shia Islam formed in the late 1980s, eventually overthrew Yemen’s government in 2014, and have since retained control over significant areas of Yemen and its population.

In response to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, in early January the U.S. and U.K. began launching airstrikes on Yemeni soil and have, over the following three months, launched hundreds more. On Thursday, April 4, Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi said some 424 U.S. and British airstrikes in Yemen have killed 37 people and wounded 30 more.

The U.S. attacks in Yemen are being carried out in a country that is still trying to recover from almost a decade of civil war and devastating attacks by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — attacks that were facilitated by military aid from the U.S. That conflict led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, with 80 percent of Yemenis still dependent on food assistance for survival.

In this exclusive interview for Truthout, two Yemeni peace activists discuss how Yemenis are perceiving the war on Gaza, the Houthi attacks on vessels in the Red Sea, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and U.S.-Yemen relations more broadly. Aisha Jumaan is a Yemen-born activist and founder and president of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation. Shireen Al-Adeimi is a nonresident fellow at the Quincy Institute and assistant professor of language and literacy at Michigan State University’s College of Education.

Odeliya Matter: Aisha, what have Yemenis been saying about the war on Gaza, as well as Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and the U.S. military response?

Aisha Jumaan: I would say that over 90 percent of Yemenis are supportive of the position on Gaza taken by Ansar Allah (the official name of the Houthis). The position that they took, in terms of blocking Israeli-linked and Israeli-destined ships to Gaza, has resulted in a lot of cracks in the coalition against Ansar Allah. And it’s across the board. There are a lot of other political groups in Yemen, whether it’s the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islah Party, whether it’s the Secessionist Southern Transitional Council, all of these groups have had prominent leadership break away and go to Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, to support Ansar Allah’s leadership there. Yemenis have been experiencing war, aggression and siege for over nine years. We have almost 18 million people who are food insecure. And the number of people who go to the streets every single Friday for Gaza only increases.

Matter: Every single Friday?

Jumaan: Every single Friday.

Matter: How many people show up?

Jumaan: Probably 4 to 5 million people are out in the streets. On February 23, there were over 120 demonstrations in major cities, small cities and small towns.

Matter: Considering the Yemeni population is made up of about 30 million people, this means that one in six people are out protesting every Friday.

Jumaan: Yes — but don’t forget, over 50 percent of Yemen’s population is below the age of 15. So, if you take that and say 15 million are 16 and older, and we say half of those are women because women generally don’t go out into the streets to demonstrate, then we are now dealing with 7.5 million and you have 3 or 4 million out, you’re having almost 50 percent of the people who can go out, go out.

Matter: Shireen, how do most Yemenis feel about the United States’ ability to broker peace in the region, given the strikes on Houthi targets, and its military support for both the Saudi-led war in Yemen and Israel’s war on Gaza?

Shireen Al-Adeimi: The United States is not a credible negotiator or broker. They have chosen a side and have always chosen a side when it comes to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. For example, statements by this administration about the illegality of the settlements while simultaneously supporting Israel unconditionally with weapons and diplomatic cover show us that they’re not considered a serious negotiator or a serious broker for peace. The fact that the U.S. keeps holding onto the two-state solution line, despite every Israeli government’s opposition to the two-state solution, highlights the empty words and posturing of the U.S.

Jumaan: Yes, and the Yemenis never viewed the Saudi war on Yemen as a Saudi war on Yemen, they always viewed it as an American war on Yemen. If you go to Sana’a or the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah, you’ll see a lot of graffiti on the walls that says it’s an American war. You’ll see images of missiles with the text “American made” on them beside the destruction or death of people. Many Yemenis say it’s an American war and that the Saudis are only an instrument. So, right now, with the U.S. and the U.K. directly attacking Yemen, they are saying, “OK, when their instruments fail, now they are doing it themselves.”

Matter: Has the war on Gaza affected the peace process in Yemen between the Houthis, the Saudis and Yemen’s governing body, the Presidential Leadership Council?

Al-Adeimi: Yes, of course. Rumors were that the Saudis and Ansar Allah were close to reaching a deal in January. By all signals, the Saudis have been desperate to leave this war as it’s been costly to their pockets and global image and provided an obstacle in reaching their Saudi Vision 2030. Sticking points to the agreement were using oil and gas revenues in Yemen to pay government workers and opening up Sana’a airport to more than one flight a week coming in and out of Jordan — things that would alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people. On the other side, the Houthis were going to agree to end cross-border attacks.

This war has definitely stalled negotiations, and there have been reports that the U.S. played a role in derailing talks, before and since the war on Gaza. Optics-wise, the Saudis are not going to want to look like they are negotiating with “terrorists,” as designated by the U.S.

Jumaan: The redesignation of Houthis as a “specially designated global terrorist” group is also stalling the process. One of the agreements, as Shireen said, was to pay salaries to people in the north who are under Ansar Allah’s control, representing the majority of Yemenis. These people have worked for almost eight years without salaries. They go to their offices every single day because they are so committed to what they are doing, but these processes are making their lives miserable. Their salaries need to be paid from Yemeni revenues that are in Saudi banks, and under the specially designated global terrorist designation, according to U.S. Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking, this cannot be done.

Matter: Has the redesignation of Houthis as a specially designated global terrorist group affected Yemeni support for the Houthis?

Al-Adeimi: I think the Houthis’ response to Gaza has garnered them more support from Yemenis, including many who were anti-Houthi before the war on Gaza. When it comes to Palestine, it’s a very clear-cut situation for Yemenis to understand — the Houthis are seen as honorable. The response stands out in the region as the only folks standing up to Israel, despite having a lot more to lose than most people and despite limited technology. They’re using fishing boats to target vessels worth tens of millions of dollars.

Matter: What has been the Saudi reaction to this stalling of the peace process?

Jumaan: It’s quite strange because now it’s the Saudis who are telling the Americans, “Back off, deescalate — we need to move this forward.” It’s the Saudis who are saying, “Don’t derail the peace process” to the Americans.

Matter: With the world’s attention on the mass death in Gaza, many have forgotten that Yemen itself is still facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Can you give me an update on the humanitarian situation in Yemen?

Jumaan: At the moment, over 21 million need some form of assistance. Four and a half million people are internally displaced, while over 17.6 million are food insecure and need food assistance. The World Food Program cut aid to North Yemen — to 9.5 million people who, up to December, were receiving monthly food rations. Not everyone recognizes that the World Food Program gets 50 percent of its funds from the U.S. government, and the director of the World Food Program has to be an American, which today is former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley. If the U.S. is cutting food rations to North Yemen to put pressure on Ansar Allah to stop supporting Gaza, it’s not working. Ansar Allah have made their positions clear — no ship, regardless of who owns it, can get into Israel until humanitarian aid can get into Gaza. And since U.S. airstrikes in Yemen started in January, no U.S. or U.K ship can pass through the Bab El Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and is part of Yemeni territory.

Matter: How would you describe the U.S. reaction to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea in the form of airstrikes in Yemen, cutting off food rations in the North and the implications of designating Houthis as terrorists?

Jumaan: It is a form of collective punishment. We have 5 million kids and pregnant women suffering acute malnutrition. The numbers are heartbreaking and staggering. The fact that the U.S. and the U.K. are willing to keep the Yemeni people hostage to this humanitarian crisis, just to allow a genocide in Gaza to happen is eroding any credibility the U.S. has in the world.

Matter: As a Yemeni in the United States, what has led you to express solidarity with the Palestinian people?

Al-Adeimi: People who’ve lived under colonization, or the remnants of colonization, know what it’s like to be colonized. That’s why so many Arabs and people in the Global South, South Africa as a leading example, support the Palestinian people. If you’ve lived through it, you know what the generational consequences are. I was born in Adan less than 20 years after the British were kicked out, after occupying Yemen for 130 years. I grew up with stories from my parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, about living under British occupation and the horrors they faced. As you grow up you see that consequences of colonization do not disappear after a generation. Yemen is still experiencing it now.

Matter: What do you think Americans need to understand about the situation in Yemen?

Al-Adeimi: I think the average American needs to understand that their government does not have a God-given right to tell another country what to do. No one is asking “Why is the U.S. militarizing the Red Sea which is 8,000 miles away?” We should be asking, “Why does the U.S. have 800 bases around the world that we know of?” “What right do they have to bomb Yemen?” “What right do they have to invade Iraq or Afghanistan, or destabilize South America?”

We’re not asking these questions. Yemen is no different, it is an extension of U.S. foreign policy. Yet, the principles of imperialism and interventionism have not been confronted. That’s what I hope that people, at some point, have consciousness about.

Jumaan: I think the American public needs to know the facts. One is Yemen is experiencing one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, and the U.S. has a huge hand in that. The U.S. government continues to hold the Yemeni people hostage to political demands that are against international law. Preventing the peace process from taking place for a genocide in Gaza to happen and shielding the Israeli right-wing government from accountability is not only damning — it’s inhumane. It defies not just international laws, but the laws of nature.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. A correction was made to the penultimate paragraph after the interviewee clarified that she’d meant to say “the principles of imperialism and interventionism have not been confronted.”

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