Source >> Open Democracy
Thousands of miles from Gaza, a group of activists have spent the last three years battling arms manufacturers whose weapons they say are being used against Palestinian civilians.
Among them are members of the ‘Elbit Eight’, the latest group of activists set to face trial for taking direct action against arms companies. From Monday, they will be fighting charges of conspiracy to commit criminal damage, burglary, and – for some – blackmail.
The charges relate to a series of protests held during the first six months of the group’s inception in 2020. They have since led several mobilisations around the country targeting the factories and offices of firms accused of supplying munitions used in Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Their main target – Elbit Systems – is Israel’s largest arms producer, providing at least 85% of drones used by the Israeli military. Their methods have included sit-ins, blockades and paint jobs.
When a handful of activists stormed the London headquarters of Elbit in July 2020, co-founder Huda Ammori says, they were spurred on by the realisation that “there wasn’t a democratic process in this country when it came to Palestine… direct action was the only route left”.
Since then, bearing cans of spray paint and often dressed in red boiler suits and dark balaclavas, Palestine Action activists claim to have forced the permanent closure of two of Elbit’s sites, including their London head office, and the cancellation of contracts between the Ministry of Defence and Elbit systems – though Elbit and the government have denied that the protests played a role.
As the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza strip intensifies, so have the group’s protests. Earlier this week activists locked themselves to each other for hours and blockaded the entrance of Elbit’s Bristol site, completely shutting down operations. A day earlier, they had used similar methods to shut down Elbit’s Instro Precision factory in Kent.
Ammori said previous tactics she’d tried, such as writing to MPs, signing petitions and campaigning for divestment were ineffective because of an “institutional unwillingness” to accept the facts surrounding the human rights violations against Palestinians.
“I was focusing on institutional complicity – things like university investments and public fund investments. I truly did believe that that would work… But when I compare it to the Fossil Free campaign, which had been doing university divestment for decades before us, their trajectory was a lot better than it was for Palestine.
“There’s this constant obstruction or unwillingness to just accept facts… We’d have all of the research, all of the protests, all of the things that back up what we were saying but there was never a willingness from institutions to look like they were supporting Palestine in any way.”
Last month, Declassified UK revealed that despite Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, the UK government has authorised at least £472m in arms exports to the state in the past eight years. This week, the death toll according to the country’s Ministry of Health surpassed 10,000 while the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres warned that Gaza is becoming “a graveyard for children”.
Yet, Ammori said, the state and institutions “don’t want to seem like [they] understand that Palestinians are having their rights taken away from them”.
Ammori compared the responses by institutions to pro-Palestine campaigns with those of climate campaigns. “There wasn’t as much reluctance to acknowledge that the climate is burning and that we probably shouldn’t be investing in fossil fuels. But when it comes to Palestine, it’s just like you’re constantly fighting an uphill battle,” she said.
Her co-defendant and fellow Palestine Action member Milly Arnott echoed this. “I think the clampdown on dissent is the commonality between different rights movements,” she started.
“But the difference when it comes to supporting Palestine is you get this even more intense repression, and especially since the start of this current genocide since October. Other rights movements have a bit more freedom to speak about the issues, even if they also experience intense repression when they take direct action. With Palestine, it’s got to the point now where there’s a TfL driver who’s been referred to the British Transport Police just because he said ‘free Palestine’ over the tannoy of the train, and now he risks losing his job. Police have gone to visit people’s houses because they’re flying Palestinian flags.”
She added: “It feels to me that we’re seeing this massive acceleration into authoritarianism in the UK and I think the government is capitalising on this moment to try and repress people’s ability to publicly criticise UK foreign policy and Israel more than ever.”
Despite this, Palestine Action has continued to call on further mobilisation. The group created a website detailing information about 50 companies it intends to target in the UK, all of which activists say are complicit in the “murderous arms trade”.
While Elbit UK did not respond to openDemocracy’s request for comment, a spokesperson for the company has previously denied accusations made by Palestine Action that it manufactures the Hermes drone, calling the group’s claims a “fabrication”. Elbit UK has also denied exporting arms to Israel – but data by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) shows a series of export approvals to Israel from the UK. Last month, openDemocracy also revealed that the UK has no plans to stop arms sales to Israel despite civilian deaths.
‘Ordinary people’, selfish protesters
Alongside increasing authoritarianism, Arnott warned of the government and mainstream media’s attempt to stoke division “between what they frame as ‘ordinary’ people – the ‘true’ British public” and “protesters who are framed as selfish people causing disruption”.
Hundreds of thousands of people marched through London on Saturday to call for an immediate end to the bombing of Gaza. Ahead of the protest, then home secretary Suella Braverman came under heavy fire – including by Conservative peer Sayeeda Warsi – for her “dangerous and divisive” labelling of previous pro-Palestine demos as “hate marches”. Meanwhile, prime minister Rishi Sunak condemned plans for Saturday’s march as “provocative and disrespectful” owing to its falling on Armistice Day (timing that actual veteran Nadia Mitchell wrote in openDemocracy last week was entirely appropriate).
“But the people on the streets are just ordinary people,” said Arnott. “They are also the public. The government and the media are creating this artificial division to deflect attention away from valid criticism of what the government is doing.”
The Observer recently revealed how leaked documents showed proposals by government officials to broaden the definition of extremism to anyone who “undermines” British values.
Elbit has previously said that it is “proud to provide advanced technology and critical support for the UK armed forces” and that Palestine Action’s attempt to disrupt this is “dangerous and highly irresponsible”.
‘Public support is growing’
But public support for Palestine Action only appears to have grown. Last month, more than 150 trade unionists came together to block both entrances to the Kent-based site of Instro Precision Ltd, a subsidiary of Elbit that produces munitions used by Israeli forces.
Among them was Jeanine Hourani, a Palestinian organiser, trade unionist and member of the Palestinian Youth movement. “There is an appetite for there to be escalations and more mobilisations until our demands are heard, which is a ceasefire,” she said.
“The work that Palestine Action is doing in terms of shutting down factories is having a material impact. They are shutting down factories around the country, and now even around the world – they’ve spread to the US as well.”
The fight has indeed spread to Palestine Action’s US counterparts. Activists taking part in similar blockades and actions against US-based Elbit factories have targeted three separate locations in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington DC in the last week alone.
Elbit reported significant losses in 2022. In December, it lost two contracts worth over £280m with the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy as the protests unfolded. Both Elbit and the government denied Palestine Action had played a role in the withdrawal of the contracts, with justice secretary Alex Chalk claiming the decision was related to “revised operational sovereignty standards”, but the timing of the announcement – one contract was just seven months old – has led the activists to believe otherwise.
This has not gone unnoticed by Israeli officials. Earlier this year, an FOI request submitted by Palestine Action revealed that members of the Israeli embassy in London had tried to convince the attorney general’s office to intervene in court cases relating to the prosecution of protesters in the UK.
Arnott believes the public supports Palestine Action. She told openDemocracy that the group’s six-day rooftop occupation of Elbit’s Leicester factory in 2021 saw “between 500 and 1,000 members of the local community come out in solidarity”, many of whom were “outraged” when they learned that an arms company manufacturing weapons used to kill innocent people was operating on their doorstep.
Despite police blocking – and in some cases arresting – locals for passing the activists food and water, they endured the blockade, drinking rainwater to prolong their protest. Ammori said it was “liberating to make an impact just using my own body”.
In May this year when activists once again took over Elbit’s Leicester site for days on end, the group said that locals turned up with clothes, tents, sleeping bags, food and hygiene products after theirs were confiscated by police – something they said made it clear to Leicester police that “Palestine Action have the people on our side”.
“What’s been the most disturbing to me has been the response of the [criminal justice system] to Palestine Action. We have seen legal means being weaponised against people who dare to engage in direct action,” said Hourani.
“But taking action really sends a clear message the the British government that we do not accept British workers and British labour being utilised to manufacture weapons that are being used to wage a war and commit genocide against the Palestinian people. The blockade really sent a clear message of ‘not in our name’”.
Jake Thomas, a trade unionist who was also at the blockade, echoed this. “We don’t realise the amount of power that we have. A lot of time, as workers, it can feel frustrating when the media and the political class don’t seem to represent any of our views. [But] whether it’s the climate movement or Palestine, there are immediate and material changes that can be made through the use of mass mobilisation.”
Arnott added: “For the ruling class, for imperialists, for arms companies – nothing is more powerful for them than for people to lose hope, or to not believe that the status quo can change. Holding on to this hope is what sustains us all in the fight for liberation and the fight for a better world… Nothing has changed in this world without people standing up and risking their liberty for justice and freedom.”
Updated 13 November 2023: This article has been amended to reflect the sacking of Suella Braverman as home secretary, and the protest that took place in London on Armistice Day.
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