The British countryside is known for its rolling hills and endless green pastures dotted with docile sheep and, this time of the year, adorned with fields of bright, yellow rapeseed flowers. But this rambler’s heaven hides between the trees and bushes a lethal secret, for it is also home to sprawling factories that churn out deadly weapons and prying drones exported to the battlefields of the world far from these peaceful isles. In many cases, the local residents are little aware, let alone consenting, until it is too late.
Shenstone, a large village in Staffordshire in the English countryside, is home to one such factory, UAV Engines, an Israeli drone maker and subsidiary of Elbit Systems LTD. The village has become a battleground between the company and those who wish to oust it from the area.
UAV Engines has launched a charm operation to woo the locals, apparently sending a representative to join a private chat group reserved for village affairs. Around the same time, it has printed letters and posted them through the locals’ doors.
The role of former police officer Martin Kelly
Messages posted on the ‘Shenstone Alerts’ WhatsApp chat (180 members) examined by The New Arab show a self-declared representative of the arms maker attempting to deflect accusations against the company of having links to ‘violence in the Middle East’. But the introduction of this new member linked to the weapons manufacturer on March 29th, appears to have triggered tensions within the local community.
Upon joining the group chat, a Martin Kelly first presented himself as a ‘security advisor’ working for the local Israeli arms factory.
In 2009, a Detective Sergeant Martin Kelly was given a commendation for having saved the life of a suicidal teenager near Coventry, according to an article published by online daily The Mirror. Kelly was also mentioned as a West Midlands Crime Investigation Department (CID) detective in an article published by regional online daily Express and Star in February 2021.
Despite the lack of an online presence connecting Martin Kelly to Elbit, his pictures during his time as a police officer published online were seen by three different local sources who confirmed his identity to The New Arab. All three said they saw him walk out of the UAV Engines facility during a protest held on March 29.
The West Midlands CID’s remit involves policing high level crimes including serious assaults, blackmail and arson. Yet for the past four months, Kelly has been apparently working for Elbit Systems UK – as well as UAV Engines – as he claimed in his WhatsApp message (screenshot below).
Elbit runs its operations in Great Britain under the name Elbit Systems UK, which is the parent company of UAV Engines.
The Palestine Action group was launched in July 2020, taking aim at Elbit and subsidiaries’ sites in Britain. Its activists are frequently arrested by the police, including the West Midlands Police Force, following direct actions against corporations that do business with the Israeli military industry, though not all linked to Elbit.
Kelly apparently left the police force in the period after the launch of Palestine Action. It is not clear whether he had a role in countering pro-Palestine activists before joining Elbit Systems. The West Midlands Police (WMP) told The New Arab that they could not comment on former officers, without confirming whether Kelly had been in their ranks or not.
Kelly was not available to comment on his work for the WMP and Elbit Systems UK by the time of publication.
UAV Engines was not available to comment on the capacity of Mr. Kelly at the Shenstone factory by the time of publication.
The campaign against Elbit and UAV Engines
Since 2014, Pro-Palestine activists have targeted what they say is Elbit Systems’ operations and supply of engines to Israeli drones out of the UK.
Elbit Systems UK has nine sites across Britain, including four factories. They also operate out of three Royal Air Force sites. Using Gaza as a testing ground, Elbit positions itself well on the global arms trade market, gaining contracts with the British military to supply the very same drones that continue to reinforce Israel’s illegal blockade of Gaza.
Elbit UK subsidiary UAV Engines has been targeted since 2014, but the campaign against it saw a significant spike with the launch of Palestine Action in July 2020. The group employs various tactics aimed at disrupting and exposing Elbit’s operations in communities across Britain.
In September 2020, the very first occupation of Palestine Action involved activists blockading the gates to the site, whilst others scaled the building, equipped with paint.
After three days, the occupation came to an end, but the site remained in tatters. According to Palestine Action, UAV Engines was left out of business for two weeks, and lost considerable profits in the process.
In response, UAV Engines erected fences across the roof of the building, barbed wire, CCTV and ANPR cameras, a security box at the front, and now employ 24 hours security with guard dogs.
It is hardly what you would expect in a rural setting. In fact, locals have described the site as an ‘eye sore’ in their village.
Working closely with the police, UAV Engines may have sought an end to the confrontation by human rights activists through their prosecutions by the British courts. However, in December 2021, when the first activists in Palestine Action faced trial, a British judge acquitted them of all charges, despite the activists’ open admission to covering the site in blood-red paint and blockading the gates.
The reason for their acquittal was based in proportionality of the acts taken by the activists in comparison to the destruction of lives in Palestine. In his judgement, Judge Waites stated that Palestine is an important issue, the arms trade is an important issue, the defendants believed in what they were doing, and the location was specifically chosen.
In January 2022, Elbit Systems announced they were selling off their Oldham subsidiary, as part of a “restructuring process”. The Israeli arms firm had initially bought the subsidiary for £15million, but 12 years later, they sold it for just £9million. This represented a significant victory for Palestine Action and, according to Israeli economic researcher Shir Hever, “a blow to Elbit’s expansion strategy”.
Shortly after the Oldham sell-off, activists redoubled their efforts at Elbit’s nine remaining sites and, despite the hordes of security, they hit the factory twice in the space of ten days. The second of which, saw six activists inflicting damage on machinery inside. All the activists were released without charge just hours after their arrest.
On May 15, Palestine Action chose to commemorate Nakba Day by breaking into the premises of Elbit’s Bristol headquarters.
With the inability to convict Palestine Action activists, Elbit selling off their subsidiary in Oldham, and the increased frequency of disruptive protests at their site, UAV Engines responded by launching a PR attack on the group.
Distancing themselves from Israel
Prior to recent events, UAV Engines and its parent company, Elbit Systems, consistently refused to give any comment to the press on their activities and their response to repeated protests at their sites.
Last February, UAV Engines broke their silence by posting letters through the doors of the community surrounding the drone engine factory in Shenstone, in an attempt to distance themselves from the accusations brought to them by Pro-Palestine activists.
The letter provided a detailed account of the material damages inflicted by Palestine Action on the UAV Engines factory in their latest actions. It was accompanied by images of destroyed equipment at their facility.
UAV Engines said the attacks launched by Palestine Action "also take their toll on the mental well-being of our employees, their partners and families in addition to the disruption of the local community and other companies on the adjoining estates”.
In the sentiment of acting like an ordinary British company, their letter stated that all employees are British citizens. No mention was made of the 4 Israeli directors sitting on their board.
Without mentioning the word Palestine, they denied that they were in anyway “responsible for deaths in the Middle East”, despite parent company Elbit having worked alongside Israel’s military to conduct strikes against the population of Gaza in May 2021.
When discussing the May 2021 attacks on Gaza during an interview, an Israeli military general said: “We operated day and night in cooperation with unit 9900, Elbit, the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure… to perfect the system. We carried out more than 30 operations”
In a turn of events for an Israeli arms company, they also tried to distance themselves from their Israeli roots, claiming they “do not supply engines to Elbit Israel”. A quick look at their latest export licenses as documented by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), shows permission granted for regular exports of drone parts directly to Israel.
Although UAV Engines mainly refer to their supply of military components to the UK armed forces, Elbit Systems have applied for 533 export licenses between 2008 and 2020, with Israel as their main global customer.
Despite Elbit providing 85% of Israel’s military drone fleet, UAV Engines claimed that they are “NOT perpetuating or in any way contributing to a war crime as alleged by Palestine Action”. The 2009, 2012, 2014, 2018, 2021 attacks on the population of Gaza, which is illegally occupied by Israel, show otherwise.
A 2009 The Guardian article had already highlighted the reported use of UAV Engines rotary Wankel engines in Elbit's Hermes 450 drone, which was employed by the Israeli air force for surveillance and targeting in the 2009 offensive on Gaza. After being presented with evidence, Elbit had continued to publicly deny any connection between UAV Engines and the Israeli army.
Elbit joins Shenstone WhatsApp Group
Elbit/UAV Engines’ access to the village chat group began with a local who reportedly shouted at an elderly female protestor outside the factory on March 29, according to Palestine Action. Mr. Kelly is said to have then walked out of UAV Engines and “escorted” the counter protester home, according to what the latter wrote on WhatsApp. Shortly after, the resident added Kelly to the chat. This was Elbit’s entry point into the village’s main form of communication.
Once Mr. Kelly entered the local chat, he took the opportunity to echo the company’s PR efforts. “The company makes engines for what is called the watch keeper drone. This drone is used entirely by the British military for surveillance purposes and has no offensive capabilities,” wrote the former police officer.
But the controversial Watchkeeper drone project he is referring to, was a result of a £1.2 billion contract which led to the formation of UAV Tactical Systems (U-TACS), a joint venture of Elbit and Thales, based in Leicester. The drone is modelled on Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone, used extensively in Israel’s bombardments of Gaza.
In addition, U-TACS applied for licences to export military components to Israel between 2014 and 2020. The drone’s capability includes surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capability and has operated for over 100,000 hours in Afghanistan and Iraq, as detailed on U-TACS website.
Mr. Kelly continued by stating the company’s ambition to “reduce the number of protestors” and their concern of how the local community is affected by such protests. But one of the groups (South Staffordshire Palestine Solidarity) regularly protesting outside the factory are in fact locals to the area.
Included in his messages, was a mention of the company’s apparent attempts of engaging with Palestine Action to resolve issues - a claim which the group denies by explaining the only engagement they’ve had from Elbit Systems has been violent attacks upon their activists. Videos of which are shown on Palestine Action’s social media.
But when asked by other chat group members why the company has not gone to the press about their supposed clean human rights record, Mr. Kelly responded by suggesting instead a public meeting with Elbit and the police force, his former employers.
Failing to leave the group on the request of some locals that were unhappy with his presence, Kelly went on to warn about future protests by a local Palestine solidarity group, inviting a call for a counter protest in the chat.
The call for a counter-protest came from the same local whom Mr. Kelly had “escorted” home. Although the approach of the Elbit/UAV Engines security advisor is welcomed by some locals, his attempts to broaden community support for the firm’s lethal operations has fallen short. There was no counter protest. Instead, other locals hit back by expressing their desire to see the factory leave.
It is not clear whether local authorities ever sought some form of consultation with the residents to obtain their consent to the presence of this factory.
Meanwhile, further reports suggest that this isn’t the first time a former police officer has joined the security ranks of Elbit Systems. The British police also seems to be eager to purchase and deploy Israeli drones in the UK.
Whether or not private security advisors like former Sergeant Martin Kelly are leveraging their ties to the police force to facilitate their aims, the British authorities and police have a lot to answer for about the nature of their relationship with Israeli arms manufacturers linked to gross violations of human rights.
Disclosure: Huda Ammori is an activist with Palestine Action. The New Arab investigative unit worked with her for the purpose of this article, while making all possible attempts to independently verify each piece of information.