In The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), Friederich Engels describes the good folk of Manchester and those unfortunate souls that toiled in the ‘dark, satanic’ mills (as described by William Blake) of the surrounding area. In the 19th century, these mills processed raw materials into textiles from countries whose resources had been plundered by the British. Whilst many of the former mills in nearby Manchester are now either desirable yuppie flats or have fallen into disrepair, some in Oldham are still in the business of manufacturing. In an area devested by deindustrialisation and high in unemployment, this may seem positive, but with the notable exception of one former mill with links to a more modern colonial project: Cairo House, formerly Cairo Mill, on Greenacres Road.
Previously owned by Ferranti International PLC – an electrical engineering and equipment firm – the building was bought by the Israeli Arms manufacturers Elbit Systems in 2007. They retained the name and called their subsidiary Ferranti Technologies Ltd. Residents initially thought the factory opening once more after some years of being disused was a positive move to bring employment; no small issue when under 24s in Oldham are twice as likely to be unemployed than elsewhere in the country. Elbit’s adoption of the name ‘Ferranti’ – a former established and respected company that employed many locals – initially obscured the true nature of the site’s activities of the manufacturer of arms used frequently to surveil and kill Palestinians.
Elbit Systems are one of many arms companies profiting off the Israel’s occupation of Palestine, but their involvement is highly extensive – they provide 85% of the drones used by the Israeli military, as well as lethal and intelligence gathering robots, targeted mortar ammunition, surveillance systems (including that used for the apartheid wall) and more. Israeli media reported that Elbit drones were in use and the company’s personnel were part of the operation room of a special drones’ unit deployed during Israel’s 11-day onslaught against Gaza in May 2021 which left over 248 people dead and over 1,900 injured. Elbit Systems – amongst other arms companies – also attended the DSEI and the Liverpool arms fair which were successfully targeted by Palestine Action in 2021.
However, this sorry period that blighted Oldham’s history for 15 years came to an end on January 10th this year when Elbit ditched their subsidiary Ferranti Technologies, selling the huge site for a mere £9 million having bought it for £15 million in 2007 (equivalent to £21,283,435.58 in today’s money). The most likely reason Elbit sold up at a massive loss is because of an unprecedented and sustained campaign by pro-Palestine pressure groups.
The most active of these groups is also the fastest growing. Palestine Action’s growth over a period of a year and a half is astonishing and has surprised even them. During the last horrifying bombing campaign in Gaza in May 2021, one person per minute was signing up via their Instagram account. Its members come from a broad range of backgrounds reaching far beyond the usual activist cohort. They have approximately 40% BAME membership, as well as many queer and trans volunteers. One of the latest to sign up, who is over 70 years old, had this to say,
“Major achievements for humanity and peace could only be brought about by physical and abrasive action, derailing the actions of the oppressor and drawing public attention to the cause. I was active in the anti-apartheid struggle in Namibia and in South Africa which was fought and won with multiple means including bush-wars, ambushes, sabotage, strikes, courageous media, civil disobedience. For many decades until today the brutal oppression of the Palestinians remains to be resolved. Apartheid still thrives there…Be a spanner in the oppression machine, disrupt the smooth workings of the killing industry.”
Several of the older members are veterans of apartheid South Africa and played active roles in the struggle. Members who may not cross paths in their day to day lives are coming together to help each other over a fence to attack an arms fair, or occupy a factory roof. As well as international solidarity PA are also aware of the particular role Britain played and continues to play in the Middle East. Co-Founder Richard Barnard says,“The problem started here with the Balfour agreement and we will start the end of it here!”
The extent of the complicity between the UK Government, the arms industry and Israeli apartheid is well documented. The government’s arms agency – the UK Defence and Security Exports – was established in 1966 and employs around 130 civil servants (as of 2017) who work behind the scenes, arranging contacts and visits. They manage the UK presence at international arms fairs and handle the official invitations. They also absorb costs for arms companies if the buyer doesn’t pay and they provide research and development funding and diplomatic support. Even though arms account for only around 1.4% of UK exports, the sectors which cover the remaining 98.6% have only around 107 dedicated civil servants promoting their exports. Laws that attempt to prevent the sale of arms where they would be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, attacks against civilians and breaches of the Geneva convention are flagrantly ignored despite the Arms Trade Treaty that was ratified into UK law in 2014. Even if this were not the case, such treaties offer a veneer of respectability and an illusion of safeguards to an industry that is morally bankrupt to its core and whose sole purpose is profiteering in death and destruction. Such an industry is in need of abolition rather than reform. It was only fitting then that international delegates had to collect their lanyards at DSEI this year through a white marque soaked in blood red paint.
Information obtained under FOI requests has shown that the UK government has consistently granted export licences to Elbit Systems for the export of arms to Israel. The UK is a significant supplier of often critical components for military equipment to Israel. UK arms supplies to Israel have persisted regardless of Israel’s actions in Gaza, which have killed thousands of civilians and extensively destroyed civilian infrastructure. Significant UK components (15% of the total value) are included in every F-35 combat aircraft built by the US, including those supplied to Israel. Israel confirmed the use of F-35s in their most recent major assault on Gaza, that killed 256 Palestinians, 67 of whom were children. Likewise, UK-supplied head-up displays are included in F-16I combat aircraft, which form the backbone of Israel’s strike fleet.
The massive failure of parliamentary politics to even address these sorts of issues is leading a growing number into direct action against inaction on climate change as well as the arms trade. The once in a lifetime chance of a liberal democracy delivering a pro-Palestine opposition leader ended suddenly at the end of 2019. Labour friends of Palestine chair Lisa Nandy is now saying she will door knock for any labour candidate who stands against Jeremy Corbyn in his long-held seat where he is regarded as a champion of more than just Palestinian civil rights. Even the genteel Palestine Solidarity Campaign were banned from speaking at the Labour Party Conference in 2021. It’s out of this watered-down posturing that direct action as ever finds not only its appeal, but its political impetus.
Palestine Action: 2 Elbit: 0
Direct action as they say gets the goods. This isn’t always true unless by ‘get the goods’ you mean ‘gets you in court’. In recent months however Palestine Action have both got the goods and got themselves in court. The first PA/Elbit court case in early December last year – and indeed the first ever time a case concerning direct action against Elbit Systems has proceeded to trial – culminated in a not guilty verdict and a spectacular win for the Palestine Actionists and the broader pro-Palestine movement. District Judge Marcus Waite, who presided over the trial, acknowledged that the Israeli occupation was,
“a very significant, and important, global political issue with profound implications not just locally in the Middle East, but around the world. Furthermore, the question of British arms exports to Israel, and indeed to other parts of the world…is a gravely serious issue which is legitimately the subject of debate, campaign and protest”.
It comes as little surprise then that the government is looking into implementing an ‘Interpretation bill’, whereby all decisions made by judges will be reviewed annually and the government will be able to overrule or strike out those decisions with which they do not agree. This attempt of the government to override the powers of the judiciary represents a disturbing authoritarian slide and should be especially concerning for protestors taking action on serious political issues.
Despite general trends of the continued move of the political establishment ever further to the right, those of us in activist circles should do well to celebrate our wins despite, and indeed because of, the current political climate. After only 18 months of sustained action, including occupations of and extensive damage to the Oldham site (amongst others), weekly protests, a Palestine solidarity gig outside Cairo House by the British-Iraqi rapper Lowkey, and the loss of millions of pounds of profit, activists ultimately succeeded is ending the factory’s production of specialist military technologies for Israel’s fleet of combat drones. May this victorious start to the year herald the end of Elbit Systems for good.
Alvy Dirt Mooch, Joe Wilkes