The Houthis, formally known as the Ansar Allah ("Supporters of God"), have now attracted widespread global attention because of their attacks on ships in the Red Sea and Arabian Sea regions as part of their campaign to put pressure on Israel to cease its military campaign in Gaza, and the recent airstrikes launched by the United States and the United Kingdom against their positions in Yemen. Many 'anti-imperialist' observers in the West sympathetic to the Houthis' attacks and their opposition to Israel and the United States have cheered the Houthis and come to equate them and the territories under their control with all of Yemen, forgetting the large swaths of the country that are held by other factions opposed to the Houthis and sometimes at loggerheads with each other.
In the Arab world, the perception of the Houthi movement has been more complex. In previous years, Iranian support for the group (which seized Yemen's capital of San'a nearly a decade ago and has fought a war against other Yemeni forces mostly backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) has tainted the Houthis as a 'proxy' militia of Iran. In more extreme terminology, such as that espoused by the Islamic State and some Salafis, the Houthis, by virtue of their Shi'ism, are derided as 'Rafidites' (a derogatory term for Shi'a) who must be fought and killed as apostates.
But at least here in Ramallah (which, despite the pompous tweeting of Mariam Barghouti, is hardly a warzone or being subject to some sort of Israeli 'invasion', even if Israeli forces sometimes undertake security raids), there is little doubt that the group's actions have raised its profile for the better, and what otherwise might have been a suspect actor is commended as a brave supporter of the Palestinian cause.
The growing sympathy for the Houthis became most apparent in prayers I attended today at the Gamal Abdel Nasser mosque, which is near the apartment I am staying at. The prayers were followed by a sermon in which the preacher hailed the "people of Yemen" as a blessed people in the same way that the "people of al-Sham" (the Levant: including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine) are blessed. One of the lines of evidence he gave for this was a saying (hadith) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, which asserts that 12,000 people will come out from Aden-Abyan (referring to the Aden region in the south of Yemen) supporting God and His Messenger. The preacher commended the Houthis (without naming them) for stopping ships from reaching the "Zionist entity" and for confronting two of the world's most powerful states (America and Britain). The obligation on Muslims is similarly to support the people of Gaza however they can, and here in the West Bank, the least they can do in this regard is to pray for God to support Gaza and the "mujahidin."
Curious, I decided to approach the preacher after his sermon, and asked him to clarify his position given that some say that the people of Yemen (by which I meant the Houthis) are "Rafidites." He rejected the label of Rafidites in this case, saying that the Zaydi Shi'a (the particular sect of Shi'ism to which the Houthis belong, as opposed to the Iranians who are Twelver Shi'a) are in fact closer to the Sunnis than the rest of the Shi'a, even if there is some "innovation" (Arabic: bid'a) in their practices. In contrast, the Ja'afaris (i.e. the Twelver Shi'a) have possibly fallen into "kufr" (disbelief) and not mere bid'a.
This position of distinguishing among different sects of Shi'a is actually more widespread among Sunnis than might be supposed. For example, in 2021, I asked Abu al-Fatah al-Farghali (who was then a leading Egyptian cleric in the Sunni insurgent group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham that is based in northwest Syria) what the ruling on the Shi'a was. He explained that one could not apply a single ruling to the all the Shi'a: while some of their sects like the Alawites had fallen into disbelief, others like the Zaydis were guilty of innovation but not disbelief.
As such then, the Houthis' continued adherence to Zaydi Shi'ism, despite their relations with Iran, bolsters their credibility here in their latest actions. It is indeed sometimes easy to forget the Zaydi-Twelver distinction, even as there are some Twelver Shi'a who have fought on the Houthi side of the Yemeni civil war.
In contrast with the Houthis and their actions, support for the Palestinian cause shown by Iranian-backed Twelver Shi'i factions like Hezbollah and some Iraqi 'resistance' groups has not necessarily dampened suspicion here that Twelver Shi'ism goes outside the fold of Islam. Palestinians here frequently express great fondness for Iraqis but perhaps without being aware that most Iraqis are Twelver Shi'a.
On one instance, a local boy in the old town in Bethlehem, who referred to me as 'the Iraqi', casually expressed his view that he did not consider Shi'a to be Muslims, and mocked their mourning rituals involving chest-beating. One local Christian in Bethlehem explained that these sorts of views likely arise from the fact that Palestinians here simply have little if any real-world encounters or interaction with Shi'a.
There is also widespread affection among Palestinians for the former Iraqi leader Saddam Husayn – one wonders whether, besides being rooted in Saddam's actions against Israel, it is also due to his suppression of political expression of Shi'i Islam – something that also underlies affection for him in insurgent-held parts of Syria.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is an Arabic translator and editor at Castlereagh Associates, a Middle East-focused consultancy, and a Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum. He runs an independent newsletter at aymennaltamimi.substack.com.