JERUSALEM - US and British intelligence agencies for years hacked into Israeli drones carrying out surveillance to prepare for a potential strike on Iran, Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot reported on Friday.

Citing documents leaked by rogue US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, Yediot said that the operation, codenamed ‘Anarchist’, began in 1998 at a British facility in the Troodos mountains of Cyprus and a US National Security Agency (NSA) site at Menwith Hill, in northern England.

‘From the documents it emerges that Israel operates a large fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles,’ the paper wrote. ‘They collect intelligence in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and throughout the Middle East and were even used according to the editors (of the Snowden files) for gathering intelligence to plan the bombing of Iran.’

Snowden, who had worked for the NSA, leaked a hoard of documents in 2013 revealing a worldwide US surveillance programme. The Yediot report, which the paper says was submitted to the Israeli military censor before publication, does not give details of the Jewish state’s surveillance of Iran but it shows what are purportedly the first published images of armed Israeli drones.

It also tells of Anarchist’s penetration of F16 fighter pilots’ heads-up display, in one case showing the aircraft tracking a target on the ground. ‘It’s as if they sat with them in the cockpit,’ the paper wrote.

‘It’s a look into the secret Israeli combat world,’ it said. ‘Potential targets, aims, priorities and capabilities, from Israel’s view of its enemies. The United States and Britain profited from Israel’s superb intelligence abilities and saw everything that Israel saw.’ Israel’s foreign ministry declined to comment but Yuval Steinitz, minister of energy and a former intelligence minister, said he was disappointed.

‘We are not surprised. We know that the Americans spy on everyone including us, their friends,’ he told Israeli army radio. ‘It’s disappointing nonetheless because of the fact that for decades we haven’t spied or gathered intelligence or broken codes in the United States.’

After the 1985 arrest in Washington of US Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard, for passing US secrets to Israel, the Jewish state pledged never to spy on its ally again. Yediot quoted an unnamed senior Israeli intelligence official describing the latest report as ‘an earthquake.’ ‘Apparently none of our encoded communications devices are safe from them,’ he said.

Moreover, a vulture captured in Lebanon on suspicion of spying for Israel has been returned home with the help of the United Nations, Israeli authorities said Friday.

‘In a discreet operation with the Lebanese and with the great help of UN forces and the UN liaison unit, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority was able to return the vulture that was caught a few days ago by villagers of Bint Jbeil, Lebanon,’ the authority said in a statement.

The UN acted as a go-between in negotiations between the Lebanese and the Gamla Nature Reserve where the bird lived before it flew across the border, it added. ‘The attempts were successful and yesterday evening at a meeting at the border at Rosh Hanikra the vulture was returned in reasonable health by UN officers,’ the statement said, referring to an area in northern Israel.

The bird was ‘said to be weak and with minor injuries’ and had been taken for treatment. The Nature and Parks Authority issued a photograph of the bird being handed over by uniformed members of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL. It had first raised concerns over the vulture on Tuesday after images shared on social media appeared to show the bird with an Israeli identification ring and location transmitter captured by the villagers.

The authority at the time said the villagers had suspected espionage due to the transmitter but the bintjbeil.org news portal said the bird had been freed after it was deemed not to pose any threat. The vulture had crossed the border some days before and flown about four kilometres (2.5 miles) into Lebanon, the authority said.

Israel and Lebanon are technically at war and the UNIFIL peacekeepers monitor their disputed border. Citizens of the two countries are banned from communicating by law. Conspiracy theories are endemic in the Middle East, particularly when it comes to Israel’s spying activities.

Last summer, Palestinian media reported claims by the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers that they had apprehended a dolphin off their Mediterranean coastline, equipped with video cameras for an Israeli spying mission. In 2011, Saudi media reported that a vulture carrying a GPS transmitter and an identification ring from Tel Aviv University had been detained by security forces who suspected it was being used for espionage. And in 2010, Israel’s foreign ministry dismissed Egyptian reports linking a spate of Red Sea shark attacks to the country’s Mossad intelligence agency.