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Weapons transfers to Israel from British bases an open question

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A C-130 Hercules military aircraft

‘Given Akrotiri’s size, capacity and proximity to the Middle East, it’s hardly a far-fetched hypothesis’

Both Nicosia and London have denied the Sovereign Base Areas (SBA) on the island are being used as a conduit for weapons transfers to Israel amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza. But the UK government’s reluctance to provide any information as to what materiel is in fact being airlifted to Israel via Akrotiri, while neither proving nor disproving the proposition, appears to leave the matter an open question.

The issue surfaced last week when UK defence news website Declassified UK reported that the RAF had made over 30 military transport flights to Tel Aviv since Israel began bombing Gaza. When contacted, the British defence ministry declined to provide the news outlet any detail of the cargo or personnel on the flights, identified by open-source logs.

RAF Akrotiri sits 180 miles from Tel Aviv with a flight time of 40 minutes.

The identified US aircraft landing at RAF Akrotiri on various dates since the start of hostilities in southern Israel included C-17, Hercules and A400M Atlas military transport planes.

By contrast, Declassified UK said, it could track no US Air Force planes arriving from US bases in Europe – such as Rota base in Spain and Ramstein air base in Germany – in the two months before the Gaza bombing campaign began.

Meantime Israeli newspaper Haaretz likewise reported that over 40 US transport aircraft, 20 British transport aircraft and seven heavy transport helicopters had flown to RAF Akrotiri, carrying equipment, arms and forces.

Replying to queries from Declassified UK, the British MoD said that up until that time the RAF had operated 17 flights into Tel Aviv in order to support the UK’s diplomatic engagement in the country as well as to assist with the departure of British nationals.

“None of these flights transported any lethal aid for foreign nations,” the MoD added.

The Sunday Mail has followed up by contacting the British MoD to ask which third countries have used Akrotiri to transfer materiel – lethal or otherwise – to Israel, and to describe the nature of the materiel.

We received the standard reply from an MoD spokesperson: “In response to the situation in Israel and Gaza, we are working with international partners to de-escalate the conflict, reinforce stability and support humanitarian efforts in the region. Any use of UK bases will be in line with these objectives.”

The response added some background: “It is standard practice for the Ministry of Defence to routinely authorise requests for limited numbers of allies and partners to access the UK’s air bases.

“For operational security reasons and as a matter of policy, the MOD does not offer comment or information relating to foreign nations’ military aircraft movements or operations. RAF flights to Israel have been in support of the UK’s diplomatic engagement in country as well as to assist with the departure of British nationals.”

Similar enquiries to the Cyprus government went nowhere. At the time of writing this report, President Nikos Christodoulides was abroad, and with him the government spokesman, who could not be reached for comment.

We reached out to the Cypriot defence ministry, where a press officer simply deferred to Christodoulides’ remarks of November 18: “There is no such information. Our country cannot [should not] be used as a staging post for military operations.”

At this time, and despite multiple media reports, there is no documentation on what weapons or munitions the US has transferred to Israel since the outbreak of the crisis. All that has been confirmed is that Washington has committed to sending Iron Dome air-defence missiles, small diameter bombs and Jdam kits, which convert unguided bombs into GPS-guided weapons.

Speaking to the Sunday Mail but on condition of anonymity, a source close to the government asserted that “this story”–- meaning weapons transfers to Israel via the SBA – “holds no water.”

The source added: “Why would these shipments stop over in Akrotiri in Cyprus? Why not fly direct to Israel from, say, Ramstein base in Germany?”

Analysts have also observed that Sigonella airbase in Sicily would make for a likelier candidate as a hub for US airlifts to Israel. Sigonella is one of the most frequently used stops for US airlift aircraft bound from the continental United States to Southwest Asia and the Indian Ocean.

The consensus narrative appears to be that any US military assets on Cyprus – in particular the SBA – are being used exclusively for signals intelligence.

But a former diplomat tells the Sunday Mail that one cannot rule out the use of SBA Akrotiri as the locus for the dispatch of weapons to Israel.

“Given Akrotiri’s size, capacity and proximity to the Middle East, it’s hardly a far-fetched hypothesis,” said the source, who preferred not to be named.

The former diplomat went on to parse President Christodoulides’ comment about Cyprus not being used by foreign countries as a base of operations.

“Well he did say ‘Cyprus’, but the SBA are not Cyprus, they are sovereign British territory. So you could see this as a clever wordplay, a dodge by the president.”

The same source added that, official denials notwithstanding, “it goes without saying that the British would not need Nicosia’s consent for such operations via Akrotiri, nor do they even need to inform the Cyprus government.

“As such, when the president said they have no such information, he might well be telling the truth. On the flipside, even if Nicosia did know, would they acknowledge knowing? Probably not.”

Or, the source pointed out, it could be a case of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’

At any rate, the shroud of secrecy over the subject will keep the guesswork going. On November 20, Declassified UK published a follow-up on its original piece, revealing that the British government has “blocked” MPs asking questions about activity at RAF Akrotiri.

The website wrote that UK government departments “routinely refuse to answer specific questions about military operations for reasons of ‘national security’, but blocking all questions by elected parliamentarians goes far beyond the usual level of Whitehall secrecy.”

Kenny MacAskill, Alba MP for East Lothian, told Declassified he put down a number of parliamentary questions concerning what military support the UK is providing to Israel and the role of RAF Akrotiri in the supply of military equipment.

“Your question has been queried because it is subject to a block by Government,” he was told in an email. “The Department [Ministry of Defence] has stated that it will not comment on operational matters at this base.”

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