UK Has Flown 50 Spy Missions Over Gaza

The flights have taken off from Britain’s controversial air base on Cyprus, RAF Akrotiri, and averaged around one a day since the beginning of December, Matt Kennard reports.

Flight path of a British spy flight on its way to Gaza on Monday. (Screengrab: RadarBox, DeclassifiedUK)

By Matt Kennard
Declassified UK

  • British defence minister said in November U.K. flights were providing “surveillance support to Israel, including preventing the transfer of weapons to terrorist groups”
  • But the Ministry of Defence has since said surveillance flights are solely to help locate the two British hostages still in Gaza

The U.K. military has flown 50 surveillance missions over Gaza since December, it can be revealed.

The flights have taken off from Britain’s controversial air base on Cyprus, RAF Akrotiri, and averaged around one a day since the beginning of December.

When asked the UK government refused to provide the number of spy flights, but Declassified has analysed flight tracking records.

The British plane used is the Shadow R1, which is known as an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft.

The Shadow R1 is operated by the U.K. military’s No.14 Squadron, which is based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, east England.

The U.K. military recently awarded a £110m contract to the plane’s manfacturer, U.S. weapons company Raytheon, to update the aircraft and increase the British fleet from six to eight.

The British flights began on 3 December when two R1s flew over Gaza. The flights have continued nearly daily up until now, with around half the days featuring two flights. On 3 January, the British sent an R1 over Gaza three times.

The flights appear to last around six hours.


The U.K. Ministry of Defence announced on Dec. 2 that it would begin surveillance flights over Gaza “in support of the ongoing hostage rescue activity.”

“The safety of British nationals is our utmost priority,” the department said. “Surveillance aircraft will be unarmed, do not have a combat role, and will be tasked solely to locate hostages.”

It added: “Only information relating to hostage rescue will be passed to the relevant authorities responsible for hostage rescue.”

But the extraordinary number of flights, and the fact that they started nearly two months after the hostages were taken, raises suspicions that the U.K. is not collecting intelligence solely for this purpose.

Foreign secretary David Cameron confirmed last week that Hamas holds just two British hostages.

Israeli forces are also on the ground in Gaza, and notoriously have wide-ranging surveillance capabilities in the territory. It is unclear what Britain’s R1s can add to the hostage rescue mission.

Change in Role

U.K. Defence Minister James Heappey visiting U.S. Military Academy West Point, November 2023. (U.S. Army/Christopher Hennen, USMA)

The British government previously said its surveillance assets had a more wide-ranging role for Israel.

On 7 November, Defence Minister James Heappey told Parliament that British “flights have provided surveillance support to Israel, including preventing the transfer of weapons to terrorist groups, and to wider regional security.”

Heappey also said the surveillance flights were to “improve our situational awareness in the region and provide assurance to our partners,” assumed to mean Israel.

Heappey refused, however, to disclose the number of flights Britain had made over Gaza. “For operational security reasons, I cannot comment on the specifics of this activity,” he said.

Shadow R1 ISTAR Aircraft at RAF Waddington, 2009. (Defence Imagery, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

A week after the Oct. 7 attack, the U.K. government announced military units would be deployed to the eastern Mediterranean “to support Israel, reinforce regional stability and prevent escalation.” The military package included P8 surveillance aircraft alongside other reconnaissance assets.

Declassified has previously revealed the U.S. spy force, 1st Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, is permanently deployed at the British base on Cyprus alongside 129 American airmen.

Declassified also reported on a leaked U.S. cable in which a UK official said American spy flights from Britain’s Cyprus base “have become routine” and the “intelligence product” is often “passed to third party governments,” which is likely to include Israel.

The U.K. Ministry of Defence and U.S. Department of Defense both refused to comment to Declassified on what intelligence they are sharing with the Israelis.

Matt Kennard is chief investigator at Declassified UK. He was a fellow and then director at the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London. Follow him on Twitter @kennardmatt

This article is from Declassified UK.

10 comments for “UK Has Flown 50 Spy Missions Over Gaza

  1. shmutzoid
    January 21, 2024 at 14:30

    Over 10,000 tons of military hardware from US to Israel —— US military advisors —— US surveillance flights ——–political cover. US fully culpable for genocide. —— just as the US war ON Russia is being fought via Ukraine proxy forces, with every other aspect provided by US/NATO, the Gaza/soon Middle East offensive is a product of US/Western imperialists.

    Proxy war ON Russia, Gaza/expanding war in M.E., preparations for war ON China———–> these are ALL different fronts of the SAME war for Full Spectrum Dominance. —— This quest for global domination has guided US foreign policy since Wolfowitz Doctrine.

    per Biden’s “Decisive Decade’, the US and its junior partners of NATO make this desperate push to thwart China economic development, disrupt BRICS, SCO. ——- Weakening/toppling Russia and controlling Middle East/Iran are preludes to Grande Finale confrontation with China by decade’s end.

  2. Bruuuuuce
    January 21, 2024 at 11:31

    The good news is that the resistance has figured out how to shoot down even the American Dear Reaper 20 million dollar drones at high altitudes. So, I think I’m going to go listen to my favorite Bruce Cockburn song ….

    “Here comes the helicopter, second time today
    Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away
    How many kids they’ve murdered only God can say
    If I had a rocket launcher, I’d make somebody pay”

    “If I had a Rocket Launcher” by Bruce Cockburn.

  3. anon
    January 20, 2024 at 18:50

    Makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it?

  4. January 20, 2024 at 16:23

    Sir Tony Blair was George W. Bush`s POODLE and Bum Licker. Rishi Sunak is Biden`s and Netanyahu`s CATAMITE. Why does the UK bother with a Foreign Office ? We aren`t a Sovereign State any more.

  5. anaisanesse
    January 20, 2024 at 13:23

    Don’t pretend that the legal resistance by Hamas to an occupying force Israel has placed on Gaza and the West Bank is “terrorism”. Stop the genocide.

  6. Eddie S
    January 20, 2024 at 11:24

    To me, these kind of spy-flights missions seem to be superfluous theater to try and add justification for expenditures on obsolete military hardware. I say this because I know the US (among others) has spy satellites that can reputedly resolve the numbers on license plates from their geo-stationary orbits in the sky, so what could plane flights possibly add? Just like the B1 bombers are obsolete in this age of guided missiles, but the US occasionally sends them out to bomb ‘the latest Hitler’ because it seemingly justifies their existence…

  7. Richard Burrill
    January 20, 2024 at 10:56

    The old saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” is so true here. The map of Cyprus should educate billions of people; and the comments give us so many more words about what is happening in Gaza et al. The U.K. is a pawn of the U.S. and their partnerships with Israel’s killing machine.

  8. Valerie
    January 20, 2024 at 03:43

    Guilty as charged. Send them down.

  9. Linda Edwards
    January 20, 2024 at 00:08

    Stop the War in Gaza.

    stop the war in Yemen

    Stop the we in Israel

    Have you no shame

    • CaseyG
      January 20, 2024 at 16:23

      I wonder if the UK has noticed all of the dead bodies in so many Palestinian graveyards , that Israel has dug up, and then run run over with their machines.

Comments are closed.