Why Houthis offered Saudi POWs swap for jailed Palestinians

Leader of Yemen-based Houthi rebels offers Saudi pilot and officers in a swap for Palestinian activists in Saudi jails.

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on December 9, 2018, shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) speaking with Saudi Arabia''s King Salman bin Abdulaziz at the Diriya Pa
A handout picture provided by the Saudi Press Agency shows Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, speaking to King Salman bin Abdulaziz [File: Bandar al-Jaloud/SPA/AFP]

When the leader of Yemen’s Houthi rebels recently offered a surprise prisoner exchange to Saudi Arabia, the announcement brought to light the case of dozens of Palestinians on trial in the kingdom, where they are accused of “supporting terrorism”.

In a televised address to mark the fifth anniversary of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, Abdul Malek al-Houthi offered to swap a Saudi military pilot and four other prisoners of war held by the Houthis for the Palestinian activists.

Al-Houthi said the offer was made because his group stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people against those who “conspire against its legitimate cause”.

Saudi Arabia put dozens of Palestinian activists on trial on March 8, accusing them of supporting the  Hamas group, which governs the besieged Palestinian territory of Gaza and is considered a “terrorist group” by Riyadh. The activists’ first court appearance was held in secret without legal representation to defend them against the charges, according to the families of the detainees. The next court date is scheduled for May.

Hamas sees itself as a “national resistance movement” against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

‘Genuine’ offer

Hussain al-Bukhaiti, a political analyst who is close to the Houthi movement, told Al Jazeera via telephone from the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, the Houthi initiative is “genuine and is not a show-off offer as some critics have made it out to be”.

He said the people of Yemen support the Palestinians and their cause, and feel it is their duty as fellow Arabs to stand with them, especially at a time when many Arab governments seem to have deprioritised the Palestinian cause and have strengthened relations with Israel.

Al-Bukhaiti said the Houthis sought the release of the Palestinians over the release of Houthi prisoners held by Saudi Arabia because the Yemeni prisoners would likely be exchanged eventually in a separate future prisoner swap.

Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of some Arab states and launched a military intervention in Yemen in March 2015 after the Houthis took over the capital Sanaa the previous year and forced President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee.

The Saudi-led coalition has since dwindled and is now largely made up of forces aligned with Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates who have sought to remove the Houthis from power and restore the internationally recognised government. The Saudi-led effort has largely failed to drive the Houthis out of power.

Hamas welcomes gesture

Hamas issued a statement on Thursday in response to the Houthi offer stating that it “highly appreciates [al Houthi’s initiative] and the spirit of brotherhood and solidarity it expressed with the Palestinian people.”

“We express gratitude for [al-Houthi’s] concerns and for his initiative,” it added.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniya issued a statement last week asking the Saudi government to release its activists at a time when the coronavirus outbreak spreading in the region could endanger the detainees.

Basem Naim, a Gaza-based Hamas spokesman, told Al Jazeera by telephone that the Palestinian people appreciate any effort from any group or state that would help their cause.

Naim said the Palestinian detainees were innocent and had not committed a crime that would warrant “terrorism charges”.

“The detainees are well known in Saudi Arabia and have been living there for decades and have never once tried to undermine the Saudi security. Therefore we find it very unusual for the Saudi government to consider them as terrorists,” he said.

Naim added Saudi Arabia had a long history of support for the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation.

Among those arrested was Mohammed al-Khudari, 81, a longtime Palestinian resident of Saudi Arabia and a retired physician suffering from colon cancer, his family told Al Jazeera by phone from Gaza.

Regional power play?

Saeed Thabet, a Doha-based analyst who focuses on Yemen, told Al Jazeera that the Houthi initiative may not necessarily be a genuine attempt to secure the release of the prisoners but could be a tool to promote the Houthi movement within the region.

“Using the Palestinian prisoners, al-Houthi is trying to expand his status from a local player into a regional one,” he said.

Thabet argued that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to engage in a prisoner swap with the Houthis because Riyadh does not want to give them the status they seek.

“The Palestinian cause enjoys strong support among all Yemenis regardless of their political affiliation. Dragging them into the Yemeni conflict is very dangerous,” he added.

Saudi-Israel alignment

Mahjoob Zweiri, a political science professor and director of Gulf Studies Center at the University of Qatar, viewed the Houthi initiative through the lens of Iranian regional goals, which include casting the Saudi government in a negative light.

He said the Houthi initiative was essentially a “tactic to deploy the Arab public opinion against Saudi Arabia”.

Zweiri added that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman‘s (MBS) effort to secure the Saudi throne “led him to back US President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan and liquidate the Palestinian cause altogether”. He said this “explains [the Saudi] animosity toward the Palestinians”.

The US plan supports the Israeli goals of annexing large sections of the occupied West Bank, which the Palestinians want for a future state, and legitimises Israeli settlements built on occupied land.

The Trump administration also recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a move the Palestinians and the Arab League condemned as a violation of international law, as well as a violation of the 1993 Palestinian-Israeli Oslo agreements and numerous international resolutions. The Palestinian government in Ramallah wants the eastern half of the city to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Follow Ali Younes on Twitter: @ali_reports

Source: Al Jazeera