'Can you stop us or will we stop you?': Inside Palestine Action, the group shutting down Israel's largest weapons company
It’s long before sunrise when a group of activists arrive at the UAV Engines factory in Shenstone in September 2020. Few people are awake and, crucially, security won’t arrive for two more hours. The factory is owned by Elbit Systems, Israel's largest weapons manufacturing company.
Wearing conspicuous red jumpsuits, the activists climb onto the roof and begin drenching the building in red paint, smashing the windows and draping Palestinian flags and banners over the ledge. For three days, they occupy the roof, causing half a million pounds worth of damage.
“That first action we did, I felt so free,” says Huda Ammori, co-founder of Palestine Action, the group behind the protest.
Palestine Action was founded two years ago with the aim of using direct action to end the UK’s complicity in the “the ongoing colonisation and military occupation, and subjugation of Palestine”. Its primary campaign, #ShutElbitDown, has relentlessly targeted Elbit’s ten sites across the UK with similar actions.
"Headquartered in Haifa, Elbit Systems is one of the top global manufacturers of military drones and one of the prime profiteers of the Israeli occupation"
Last month, the campaign forced Elbit Systems to shut down and sell its subsidiary factory in Oldham, Manchester. While Elbit claimed this was part of a company restructuring, Palestine Action knows it is its sustained activism that drove Elbit out, and have vowed to continue until the company’s nine other sites meet the same fate.
In 2014, a group of young boys were playing on a Gaza beach when overhead, a Hermes 450 drone, manufactured by Elbit Systems in their Shenstone factory, wrongly identified them as “Hamas militants”. Another drone fired two missiles, killing four of the children.
This incident took place during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, a 50-day offensive against Gaza in which Israel killed 2,202 Palestinians, including 526 children.
Headquartered in Haifa, Elbit Systems is one of the top global manufacturers of military drones and one of the prime profiteers of the Israeli occupation. Its biggest customer is the Israeli Ministry of Defence - 85% of Israel’s drones are Elbit-made and their Hermes 450 and 900 drones are cornerstones of Israel’s military operations. Elbit also manufacture ammunition and surveillance technology, including that used for the separation wall.
Elbit has been a core target of Palestine and anti-war activists alike, but still continues to manufacture lethal weapons of war across its (now) nine locations in the UK.
'We’re not going to be polite anymore'
After spending years going to marches, raising awareness, and campaigning for divestment, Ammori and Palestine Action co-founder Richard Barnard grew increasingly frustrated with the pace of change in Palestine activism, which they saw as jarringly disproportionate to the severity of Israel’s apartheid regime and the UK’s complicity in it.
“It became very clear that we had to do something different. We had tried everything possible and the situation is too urgent. That’s what pushed us to direct action,” Ammori explains.
Ammori’s great-grandfather was killed by Israeli forces and her father was expelled from Palestine in 1967. Knowing that the weapons used against her people were being manufactured in the country she calls home was unacceptable.
While other activists may not share Ammori’s personal connection with Palestine, they had all tried marching, signing petitions, and campaigning for change, but became disillusioned with the lack of tangible progress. Seeing the Palestinian cause as emblematic of a wider struggle for liberation, they all felt it called for more drastic measures.
“Its great that everyone comes together for marches, but then everyone goes home to comfort and safety, while its just a matter of time until the next bomb drops in Palestine,” says Sana, a 21-year old Palestine Actionist who has taken part in several direct actions, including against Elbit’s Oldham factory.
“There’s only so many times you can say, ‘Please stop doing this’. So we’re not going to be polite anymore,” she adds.
In 2006, Eamonn McCann, a member of the infamous Raytheon 9, had a similar realisation after exhausting other forms of protest. McCann and eight other activists occupied and shut down a Raytheon factory in Derry, Northern Ireland that manufactured weapons being used by Israel to attack Lebanese civilians. “Occupation was a last resort, but you have to look at what wins,” he tells The New Arab.
"Its great that everyone comes together for marches, but then everyone goes home to comfort and safety, while its just a matter of time until the next bomb drops in Palestine"
While Palestine Action is not the first group to occupy and shut down an arms factory in the UK, the scale and intensity of its relentless campaign are unmatched. After just three weeks of direct action, the campaign against Elbit had caught the attention of the highest echelons of power. In a year and a half, Palestine Action has successfully shut down Elbit businesses around 100 times.
In response, Elbit has ramped up its security to include 24-hour surveillance, barbed wire fences, watchdogs, and rapid police response. Although these measures have forced Palestine Actionists to get more creative, they have yet to stop them from getting into Elbit’s sites.
For Torch, a 19-year-old activist from Brighton, taking on a multinational corporation and winning is empowering, and fuels an internal fire. “Direct action poses a challenge to the oppressor: can you stop us or will we stop you?”
Once in, actionists choose from a range of tactics, from sledgehammering machinery and windows, to chaining themselves to fences and even glueing their hands together to make life difficult for police.
Palestine Action provides legal workshops to ensure that activists are fully aware of the potential consequences of each action, and it is ultimately always up to them to decide how far they want to go. From there the goal becomes simple: occupy for as long as you can.
Cumulatively, Palestine Action estimates that its campaign has cost Elbit Systems tens of millions of pounds, forcing factories closed for weeks at a time and inflicting irreparable material and reputational damage. Just in selling its Oldham factory, Ammori estimates that Elbit lost six million pounds.
“With direct action, you know that it's making a difference, because every day that we occupy Elbit’s factories or force it to close is a day that their weapons are not being made and won’t be used to hurt Palestinians,” Torch tells The New Arab.
Putting it all on the line
Even with steadfast conviction, nerves inevitably run high the day before an action, with activists’ safety and futures at stake. For some, the adrenaline can be too much to eat or sleep properly.
At the hands of security and police, activists have been aggressively assaulted and detained for days at a time. Despite the risks, Barnard stresses that “the consequences we face here are so minimal compared to what our brothers and sisters face in Palestine.”
“We’ve got privilege in this country. We know that we’re not going to get seriously hurt or killed. Palestinians don’t have that, so we need to use our privilege to fight,” says Sara*, who faced arrest and trial as a result of her work with Palestine Action.
Both Sana and Torch agree that sacrifice is central to their activism, and to Palestine Action’s philosophy. “As much as it sucks to be sitting in a cell, knowing that I have forced powerful people to confront their complicity is worth it,” Torch says.
Palestine Action’s willingness to put it all on the line has earned it support from all sectors of society. In Leicester, firefighters refused to help police remove activists from Elbit’s roof, citing their solidarity with Palestine. Across the country, actions bring hundreds of community members together in support of Palestine and the activists.
Despite facing potential arrest, community supporters have thrown bottles of water up to the occupying activists, built barricades to block police, and even followed activists to the station after they’d been arrested for support. Within courtrooms, juries and judges alike have always found activists not guilty of any criminal charges.
For activists, the support they’ve seen is a testament to the strength of Palestinian solidarity. No matter how complicated the situation in Palestine is construed to be, “most people understand that a weapons company is bad and stopping them is good,” says Torch.
"Every day that we occupy Elbit's factories or force it to close is a day that their weapons are not being made and won't be used to hurt Palestinians"
But even the possibility of conviction doesn’t deter them. “Even if we are found guilty, we know that history is going to vindicate us,” says Ammori.
A call to direct action
Today, Palestine Action has grown into a network of thousands who contribute to the mission in various ways. Despite its choice of tactic, Palestine Action emphasises that their success would not have been possible without the tireless campaigning, lobbying, and demonstration efforts by local communities.
Still, the activists all share the belief that there needs to be a much more concerted push for direct action against the Israeli occupation, emphasising that online activism, marches, and peaceful protest alone will not defeat Israel’s occupation or the UK’s complicity in it.
After decades of activism, Raytheon 9’s McCann reached the same conclusion. “In the digital sphere, you can use videos and images to get the truth home, but ultimately, if you want to stop something, stand in front of it,” he says.
For Ammori and Barnard, part of Palestine Action’s mission is to show people they are more powerful than they think. “There’s something beautifully poetic about us using such simple tools, our own hands, to dismantle such a high tech company. And that shows that everyone has the power to make an impact,” says Barnard.
Putting direct action at the forefront of Palestine activism is a long term effort that will require a shift in public perception and fostering a society that understands the value of direct action. “We need to build the kind of people that are willing to put their bodies on the line and fight for people they've never met,” says Torch.
For now, though, the goal is clear: one down, nine to go.
Nadine Talaat is a London-based journalist writing about Middle East politics, US foreign policy, and media studies. She is also part of The New Arab's editorial team.
Follow her on Twitter: @nadine_talaat