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29 September, 2022updated 03 Oct 2022 15:28

Palestine Action: The sabotage experts turning heads across the business world

Palestine Action has been taking unprecedented action against Israel-based Elbit Systems in the UK, but the group says it has only just got started.

By Sebastian Shehadi

In July 2020, a handful of pro-Palestine activists stormed the London headquarters of Israel’s largest arms manufacturer, Elbit Systems, which is also the eighth-biggest arms exporter globally. Its building was blockaded and damaged, with blood-red spray paint strewn across its walls. This was the first of 15 such demonstrations at the site. 

Since then, actions such as these have, quite literally, become the scarlet hallmark of Palestine Action, a pro-Palestinian protest network committed to direct action against Elbit (which used to have ten sites dotted across the UK). Over the course of the past two years, the decentralised group, now host to tens of thousands of followers and hundreds of volunteers around the UK, has forced Elbit to abandon its London office in Kingsway and sell its factory in Oldham, Manchester, at a loss. Elbit leased its London site from real estate giant JLL, which sparked a sister campaign to target dozens of JLL premises across the country, in an effort to get the company to evict Elbit (a campaign that succeeded). 

“We are going to continue until the rest of their sites are gone,” Huda Ammori, co-founder of Palestine Acton, tells Investment Monitor. “Elbit’s whole business profits off the destruction and illegal occupation of Palestine. Nearly every weapon they build and export around the world is marketed as ‘field tested’ or ‘combat proven’, because they have used them against Palestinians first.” Although Elbit is, by far, the focus of the group’s energies, it has also targeted UK monolith JCB, whose bulldozers have been used to demolish Palestinian homes in Israeli settlements. 

Palestine Action’s nationwide sabotage campaign against companies, namely Elbit Systems, has little historical precedent in the UK. Other than the anti-tax avoidance protests levied at Starbucks in 2012, there are few examples of Brits taking direct action against foreign companies. Even domestic companies such as BP – which faced economic sabotage from groups such as XR – have not seen this level of personalised protest. Businesses, therefore, cannot ignore them, both in the UK and abroad, as Palestine Action solidarity groups grow outside Great Britain

How and why has its activism been so successful? In a Zoom call with Investment Monitor, the group’s co-founders, Huda Ammori and Richard Barnard, give their thoughts. 

Why did you start Palestine Action? 

The political process in the UK is non-existent in terms of changing how the country approaches Palestine, despite British complicity in the colonisation of Palestine and today’s situation. Protests, petitions and marches for the UK government to enforce international law and human rights conventions have failed to succeed in any significant measure. As such, you start to realise that the only viable option left to us is to take direct action.

We target Elbit. It doesn’t just build unmanned aerial vehicles, but it also builds parts for drones as a whole, as well as artillery units and armoured vehicles. Elbit creates software for target acquisition and pilot simulation training, as well as parts for the Israeli Merkava tanks. So it is a wide range of stuff being produced here in the UK.

The fact that Elbit is so deeply invested in this country in the first place is symptomatic of the UK’s historic complicity. We spent years lobbying for an arms embargo between the UK and Israel. That failed, so we realised we needed to go directly to the root and stop this using our own bodies, because no one else was going to change it for us. People feel empowered by us, because we are no longer having to appeal to a middleman to make changes. We are completely bypassing the government and doing it ourselves. This is how change often happens, from the grassroots. Maybe Westminster will follow us one day.

Why has it been so successful? 

When we started in July 2020, we saw that even a simple action such as a few of us storming an office and spray painting the walls ended up going quite far, with lots of people across the country taking notice and wanting to take part. I think many people have been waiting for an opportunity like this to take action against companies profiting from Palestine’s illegal occupation. Since then, we have just grown and grown. Surveys show that the majority of Brits are more sympathetic towards Palestine than not. So we already have the numbers, which means it is more about pushing people outside of their comfort zones.

We also think that having a focus on a single target, a single company, has for us been a key guiding principle about how we are going to win. So when we take direct action, we are not only stopping them operating, we are also sullying their name. It is a good strategy, also in terms of bringing people in and educating them about Elbit, since many didn’t know about the company. Now they do. Now it is on the radar. Elbit, before Palestine Action, was really low profile. Its subsidiaries aren’t under its name, so some of its sites were really difficult to find. The fact that it has always been so secretive shows how morally bankrupt the company is, but it is difficult for manufacturers to hide, because they need a site. 

Before we even achieve our primary goal of routing Elbit from the country, we hold that, every time we shut it down, even for a day or even half a day, it is a success. These arms companies work as a supply chain. So once you knock out one component of that supply chain, it has an impact across their other businesses. It is also about economic sabotage to the company’s buildings. If we lock ourselves to the front gates and blockade the building, or get inside and damage the property, it costs Elbit hundreds of thousands of pounds. And on top of that, it is now having to hire more and more security guards at every site.

In short, we are creating a hostile environment for Elbit Systems. Yes, Elbit is in the military space, but it is far from untouchable. We have shown people how accessible this form of activism is, and that they don’t need to be afraid. We, the people, not the government, are directly disrupting the production of Elbit’s weapons, which will eventually force the company out of the country. I think we are witnessing a sea change in how people protest in this country.

Is the UK ‘bad’ at protesting?

Brits definitely get a bad rep for not protesting enough. Extinction Rebellion made a lot of noise and took some direct action, so that was something of a start, but it has made everyone even more tired of going on A to B marches where a bunch of middle-aged white men give the same speeches they have made for 40 years. The days of orderly protesting are tiring. People actually want to do something and are fed up with inaction.

We like that David Graeber quote: “Protest is like begging the powers that be to dig a well. Direct action is digging the well and daring them to stop you.” And it is not just younger people. There are plenty of older people who have been in the Palestine solidarity movement for a long time who tell us: “I have been waiting for this for so long”.

So I think we are in one of those moments of history in which people have reached their limit of orderly but ineffective protest. They are fed up with the ‘HR-isation’ of protest in the UK: that it is all coordinated. That you need a £7,000 stage for speeches at the end. That you have got to talk to the police beforehand and come along with your witty signs. I think Brits are also seeing people abroad taking much more risk to protest, and feeling inspired. 

Were you inspired by protests groups outside the UK? 

No, not really. Actually we took some inspiration from the ‘Raytheon 9’ in Northern Ireland. I think in terms of direct action across Europe, the UK is now becoming a leading actor. We have been contacted by people across Europe, and even in the US, asking us: “How are you doing this?”

Direct action felt natural to us. Sabotaging Elbit’s weapons production is a natural response. You can’t ask them politely to stop, can you? Their whole business is built out of the illegal occupation of Palestine, and they sell their weapons to other countries, including the UK government. No one is interested in abiding by international law to support the Palestinian people. I lobbied over 70 MPs about the arms embargo, but actually they don’t need facts and persuasion. That isn’t the issue here. They know the facts but just find it easier to turn a blind eye. 

Do you think fewer arms companies will invest in the UK now?

First, we want investment into Elbit to decrease. We have already seen an East Sussex pension fund divest from Elbit because the “ESG risk was becoming too high”, as it put it. When it comes to investment, it is the political risk that we are massively increasing. We are making the UK an unstable place for investment in Israeli arms production.

That there are people out there who are adamant on shutting down Elbit means that it is going to discourage investment. Elbit has been trying hard to limit the news, in Israel, about two of its sites being permanently shut down here in the UK. It is scared that people are going to start pulling out their money. Elbit used to have a strategy of merging or acquiring new businesses in the UK. Now it is being forced to go the other way.

But even beyond the arms trade, if you are a business that profits from the oppression of Palestinians, or supports them indirectly as JLL did in leasing property to Elbit, then [activists in the UK] will make it an unsafe investment. Those companies will have to look to a different country for those investments, and ideally there will be fewer and fewer [welcoming havens for them as other countries follow our lead].

When Elbit falls, it will send a clear message to every business: it is not worth investing in the UK. Until then, the message for those working with Elbit is also: it is not worth it. If you can’t appeal to people’s humanity through ethics, you have to do it through economics and self-interest. Companies that work with Elbit now risk reputational damage. The more successful we become, the higher their risks become. 

Have any British workers railed against lost jobs from Elbit shutting down two of its sites? 

We have been slightly surprised that we haven’t really had any labour backlash, which speaks to the levels of UK public support for Palestine. And we are not seeing politicians say: “These are important jobs.” No one said that from the locals either. A big part of Elbit’s recruitment strategy is to get ex-veterans or military types, while a lot of their managers come from Israel. The arms industry, as a whole, is one of the lowest UK employers compared with its capital. Elbit employs about 500 people in the UK, but, frankly put, you can find another job with those skill sets.

More importantly, lives are on the line, which takes priority over people’s careers. Actually, the only complaints we have had from locals is people saying they are worried that house prices near the factories will go down because of the protests against Elbits. So I think locals want to get rid of them too. 

Beyond arrests, there have been fewer consequences than you might think. Before Palestine Action, several of us had taken direct action against Elbit. None of us went to trial. Either we put in disclosure requests, or the trial would be dropped the day before because they didn’t think they had enough of a case to prosecute us. So it became a very obvious pattern that no one was going to take us to court.

We believe this has to do with the fact that this company has a lot to hide and doesn’t want the public attention. We don’t actually call ourselves criminals, since we believe we are doing the just and moral thing. Even under British law, there are defences for our actions, such as the Law of Necessity, which means, for example, that if someone was burning inside a building, you could break down that door to save them, despite that being criminal damage. 

That said, Elbit doesn’t like what we do, surprise surprise – and the British state doesn’t really like it either. So we have faced repressions from day one through several police raids and countless arrests. We had our passports [taken] by the police back in 2020, and then given back. Just four weeks into Palestine Action, there was a meeting between the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, Israel’s Defence Minister and Dominic Rabb [then UK foreign secretary]. [We believe] that Raab was asked to end our movement.

We have faced a slew of criminal damage charges, but on 10 October 2022, we will see the most serious court case, based on new charges of ‘blackmail’ against [eight of our members]. If we lose this it means Elbit can put a serious crime prevention order on us, which would mean heavier sentencing and a life ban on campaigning for this cause. On the plus side, we will be getting a Crown Court, which means a jury for five weeks, and that is to our advantage, since the public tend to be pro-Palestine. It is quite ironic that the victim in this case is a company that tests weapons on Palestinians and in an illegal occupation. I think it is clear that there is a political attempt to try and stop Palestine Action, but we have nothing to hide and a lot to say. We are happy to show that we are proud to sabotage Elbit Systems, and that we are willing to take the company on in court and risk our liberty. At the end of the day, if we don’t get acquitted, history will vindicate us.

Elbit Systems did not respond to our request for a response to this article.

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