UK to conduct Middle East surveillance flights to help find Hamas hostages

The UK is to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over the Middle East to search for potential hostage locations being used by Hamas, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has confirmed.

Fighting resumed on Friday following a week-long truce between Israel and the Palestinian military group despite more than 130 hostages remaining in captivity in the Gaza Strip.

In the weeks after Hamas’s bloody October 7 raids on Israel, Downing Street said at least 12 British nationals had been killed in the attack and a further five are still missing.

Some of those are believed to have been kidnapped but the UK Government has not confirmed how many might be in Hamas’s clutches.

The MoD on Saturday said ministers had been working with allies across the Middle East to “secure the release of hostages, including British nationals, who have been kidnapped”.

In a statement published on the Government website, the department said: “The safety of British nationals is our utmost priority.

“In support of the ongoing hostage rescue activity, the UK Ministry of Defence will conduct surveillance flights over the eastern Mediterranean, including operating in air space over Israel and Gaza.

“Surveillance aircraft will be unarmed, do not have a combat role, and will be tasked solely to locate hostages.

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

MoD officials said a range of unarmed aircraft would be used for the reconnaissance flights, including Shadow R1s which are used for intelligence gathering by the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Information on the potential whereabouts of captives will be shared with Israel.

Israel Palestinians
Irena Tati holds a picture of her grandson Alexander, held by Hamas in Gaza, during a demonstration to call for the release of hostages in the Hostages Square at the Museum of Art in Tel Aviv, Israel (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The lull in the fighting during the truce allowed for 105 hostages held by Hamas and other militants to be freed.

Some had been kept for several weeks in underground tunnels dug by the Gaza rulers.

In exchange, Israel released 240 Palestinians from its prisons. Most of those released by both sides were women and children.

But fighting commenced again from Friday morning, with the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry reporting that at least 200 Palestinians have been killed since the violence resumed, taking the death toll within the territory to beyond 15,200.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) pounded targets in the crowded southern half of Gaza on Saturday.

There are fears of mounting civilian casualties after Israel dropped leaflets warning residents to leave the southern part of the strip where two million people – almost the entire Gazan population – are based following instructions at the outset of the IDF ground invasion to leave the north of the enclave.

The US and others have urged Tel Aviv to do more to protect Gaza civilians as the Israel-Hamas conflict reignited, something Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer echoed.

Sir Keir on Saturday reiterated his call for a “further pause or further cessation of hostilities” so further work can be carried out to release hostages and send aid to the besieged Palestinians.

Liz Truss
Former prime minister Liz Truss has urged for the UK to give Israel its backing ‘no ifs, no buts’ (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Speaking to the BBC during his trip to Dubai for the Cop28 climate summit, he urged both sides, while the fighting is continuing, to attempt to limit the impact on civilians.

Sir Keir said: “While we are in this phase of resumption, it is important for me to say that we can’t go back to the way the first phase of this war was conducted.

“Too many people, innocent individuals, have lost their lives in Israel and across Gaza.

“We can’t go back to where we were just a week or so ago. We have to see this as a different stage.”

Former prime minister Liz Truss struck a different tone as she urged her successor Rishi Sunak to “give our full support to the Israeli government” in the fight against Hamas.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, the Conservative MP – and the UK’s shortest serving prime minister in modern political history – said there should be “no ifs, no buts” for Britain’s backing for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his administration.

“I don’t want to see double standards applied, that Israel is held to different standards than other countries,” she said.

“They are a free democracy in a part of the world where free democracies are rare and the heinous crimes, the rape, the brutality, the kidnapping of children that has taken place is truly horrific.”

While Stateside this week for a delegation visit with the Conservative Friends of Ukraine, Ms Truss told right-wing US broadcaster Fox News that people are being “allowed” to demonstrate “in favour of terrorists” on London’s streets during pro-Palestinian marches.

Ms Truss said protesters were showing they would “rather support authoritarian regimes” than Western values.

The comments come as police said they were “surrounded” by pro-Palestinian supporters in south London following a rally organised during a “day of action” by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

The Metropolitan Police said officers were encircled and prevented from leaving after making two arrests in Windrush Square, Brixton, on Saturday.

More than 80 people have been charged in the UK over alleged hate crimes and violence linked to pro-Palestinian protests since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Lord Cameron, the former prime minister who returned to frontline politics almost three weeks ago to serve as Foreign Secretary, said the UK cannot “pretend we can somehow insulate ourselves from these crises” such as that seen in the Middle East.

Writing in The Sun On Sunday, he said: “Conflict in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the region. It can destabilise our allies and trigger mass migrations.

“And it deeply affects Jewish and Muslim populations in our own countries.

“Our response needs to be one of strength, resilience and unity.”

The peer said he will be travelling to Washington DC “next week” to work with “our closest and strongest ally” on the response to international issues, including the Ukraine conflict.