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Sixty days of resistance to Israeli weapons factory

Since the 1st May 2023, a military drone manufacturer in Leicester, UK, has been the target of a campaign which activists are calling a siege. The call-to-action against UAV Defence Systems, a subsidiary of Elbit Systems, was advertised and organised by Palestine Action and is a sequel to similar events that took place in 2021 where activists occupied the factory for multiple days, forcing production to temporarily cease. Today the siege enters its 60th day and is set to continue.

In preparation for this year’s action, activists occupied part of a woodland adjacent to the factory which Palestine Action claimed caught private security and police off guard. During the first day, hundreds descended to the industrial site to protest and call for the factory to close and featured speeches, poetry, dancing and performances by globally recognised rapper and activist Lowkey as well as award winning actor, playwright and singer Tayo Aluko. Local MP Claudia Webbe also stated that she stand[s] in complete solidarity with Palestine Action. Many others joined the woodland occupation and also set up tents on the road leading up to the factory.

This was met by a considerable response by security and police. The factory site was reinforced with additional fencing, cameras, and was guarded by private security with a dog-handling unit. The largest operation, however, was carried out by the police who, as well as being present in large numbers, erected a metal cordon wall, used surveillance drones and imposed an exclusion zone. Though a protesters car window was smashed on the day, the true extent of force used by the Police was to be seen later. Video footage shows protesters being kettled and dragged in tents and, by the third day, resulted in 33 arrests, including two Palestine Action co-founders. 

Despite this, protests and other actions against Elbit Systems have continued. On the 10th May, a lock-on was staged, blocking the entrance of the factory. A mass rally was also called soon after on the 13th May, which saw many marching to UAV, including a convoy. The event attracted the support of writer and former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein and local priest Barry Naylor who highlighted the solidarity between Muslim and Christian communities in Palestine. Another lock-on was had on the 24th May, once again blocking the factory entrance.

A constant presence of protesters at the factory has been maintained throughout the month, as seen through updates posted on social media accounts of Palestine Action and Shut Elbit Down Leicester

During this period, Palestine Action has taken action elsewhere. Nearby offices of Kuehne + Nagel, a transport and logistics company, were broken into and had equipment smashed by activists due to their connection to Elbit Systems. As part of the 75th anniversary of Nakba, activists occupied the Newcastle-based factory of Rafael due to their historic and contemporary involvement in Palestinian ethnic cleansing. Going further, Palestine Action also spray-painted the UK Foreign Office red as a symbolic action which represents the British complicity in the spilling of Palestinian blood. Additionally, the offices of Precision Facilities Management and Edwards Accountancy were targeted and included a spray-painted demand that they cut ties with Elbit. The campaign was also highlighted by a protester during Leicester’s armed forces day parade.

Solidarity with PA was also shared by Spanish eco-activists Futuro Vegetal who took action against the British state by spray-painting the UK embassy in Madrid. 

This escalation of direct action against the manufacturing of military and surveillance equipment in the UK comes from a movement that has grown considerably in a short period of time and is yet to lose momentum.  

Lowkey performing on the first day of the siege

Sustained direct action

One Palestine Action activist named Clover said, “[we] will be relentless in our efforts to end British complicity in Palestinian apartheid”. Though involved in multiple environmental campaigns, he is drawn to them because of the “huge wins that have already been achieved in such a short time”.

He explains that, though he was aware of what was happening in the region, it was Israel’s brutal crackdown on Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem in May 2021 that drove him to Palestine Action. “[I] felt increasingly more angry about the situation” so, after discovering the group, took part in a workshop and has been “organising with them ever since.”

Clover believes that direct action is the most effective way of causing social and governmental change. He says, “there is no time to waste” as the UK arms industry contributes to the killing of Palestinians in occupied territories and within Israel. United Nations data calculates that between 2008-2022 6,180 Palestinians have been killed by Israel, as well as 100 others this year alone, so shutting down Elbit, he states, “is essential for the liberation of Palestine and its people”. 

The self-proclaimed ‘actionists’ use a wide range of tactics which have ranged from disrupting corporate events, such as award ceremonies and industry dinners, to property damage and occupations, one of which allegedly caused £500,000 in damages in a single day. Clover makes his position clear that “no company or organisation who is involved with this trade should be allowed to operate freely, and Palestine Action see to it that they don’t.”

True to his words, Palestine Action have been consistently active since they began in July 2020. In their first year, they claim to have caused nearly £16million in losses, damages and security costs, primarily against Elbit and one other supplier through 70 actions. This would later prove to play an important role in the descaling of operations in the UK.

Police and private security outside of the UAV factory

In January 2022, Elbit Systems’ Oldham factory faced permanent closure following 18 months of sustained direct action. The manufacturers’ London headquarters followed suit in June and permanently closed in what Palestine Action believes is the result of their 15 actions they have taken since forming. Later in August, real estate agents Fisher German, who lease Elbit Systems’ Shenstone factory which was later targeted, were also forced to abandon their Birmingham offices. Bristol headquarters were also damaged by activists, including two dissident Israeli citizens, on the 74th anniversary of Nakba. Landlords, commercial lawyers and global representatives were also included from their targeted campaign. 

Palestine Action’s efforts have expanded outside of England. In the summer of 2022, they formed a group in Scotland which led to the occupation of Thales’s Glasgow-based factory in June and again in July. At the start of 2023, similar action was taken against Leonardo UK at their Edinburgh factory. In addition to this, activists thoroughly dismantled a factory in Wales operated by Teledyne Technologies

For Clover, the “use of direct action against all counterparts of the Israeli Regime is essential”. And following a press release that Elbit Systems were kicked out of Ministry of Defence contracts worth £280 million, it seemingly works. 

‘Surgically intercepting threats’

Elbit Systems, based in Haifa, is the largest defence electronics company in Israel, who engage in a ‘wide range of defence, homeland security and commercial programs’ internationally. Their products include computer and display systems for military aircraft and watercraft, surveillance and combat drones, and also produce surveillance systems. In addition to this, their subsidiary Israel Military Industries LTD produce weapons, munition and military technology which they claim is based on the ‘extensive experience’ and are ‘combat-proven’ by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as well as ‘other armies’.

Though there is an extensive history of Elbit Systems + technologies being used for both surveillance and as part of bombing campaigns consistently for almost two decades, there are specific events which stick out. 

According to a Human Rights Watch report, Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450 was one of the primary armed drones used during Israel’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ between 2008-2009, which resulted in the killing of over 1400 Palestinians and was used to target civilian homes and a school.

In 2014, Israel’s 50-day offensive ‘Operation Protective Edge’ claimed the lives of 2220 Palestinians, including over 500 children, with drone strikes accounting for at least 164 of children killed, according to Defence of Children International. The Hermes 450 was reported to be used during the operation, including the killing of four children whilst playing on a beach. Their flagship drone, the Hermes 900, also became operational ahead of schedule to support the final days of the military operation. Assisting this operation, the Elbit Systems’ Skylark surveillance drone was used extensively and is claimed to be deployed during ‘almost every major mission’ carried out by the IDF since 2008. 

Regardless of the mounting outrage surrounding civilian casualties, the use of drones continued. In 2021, the IDF deployed both the Hermes 450 and 900 as part of their 11-day assault against Gaza and was reported to have killed at least 250 people, including children. 

In August 2022, the whole of Gaza was ‘covered’ in drones during Israel’s three-day Operation Breaking Dawn which was reported to have used the Hermes 450 to hit dozens of targets. Israel later confirmed that, though they eliminated ‘terrorist operatives’, nearly half of casualties were unaffiliated women and children. 

The use of Elbit Systems’ technologies by the IDF has reached further. In 2006, it was reported that the Hermes 450 drones were used during the 2006 Lebanon war which saw 1086 civilians killed, a third of which were children. 

These are just a fraction of examples of how Elbit Systems’ drone technologies have been used by the IDF and is only part of a much greater arsenal available to them as well as the international market. 

‘War crime scene’ tape throughout the occupied woodland during Palestine Action’s siege

Surveillance and monitoring technologies, for example, are used to police parts of the US-Mexican border and have subsequently resulted in the harassment of Native peoples of the Tohono O’odham Nation from border guards. Border drones have also been operational. The European Union has also utilised these methods by securing contracts with Elbit Systems for the Hermes 900 maritime patrol system. Following suit, the UK has also been investing in similar methods to monitor the English channel. Using these technologies in this capacity is something that Elbit Systems boasts, as seen in an Australian promotion which describes products as surgically intercepting threats on the border.

It would appear that there are little moral boundaries in how Elbit Systems technologies are utilised internationally. Parallels have been formed between Israeli and Chile, for example, due to the government’s purchase and use of the Hermes 900 against the indigenous Mapuche people, reported as a testing ground for Israeli weapons. Another method of surveillance can be seen by the use of Elbit Systems spyware used by the Ethiopian government against political dissidents, journalists and activists associated with the Oromiya region, according to research. And going one step further, suicide drones were used by the Azerbaijan military during a reignited conflict with Armenia. These were not illegitimate black market modifications of outdated technologies, but of official Elbit Systems’ Skystriker drones known as loitering munitions. If that wasn’t controversial enough, a close combat equivalent version is also available which can carry lethal payloads

Uncertain future

Clover is fully aware of the risks involved in direct action and describes most of Palestine Action’s tactics as illegal. Many have been arrested, with some receiving prison sentences in May and June for their involvement. Others have been remanded in prison as they await their court trials. 

With the passing of legislation that criminalises serious disruption, including Palestine Action’s common tactic of locking-on, the risks activists face is almost certainly going to be much more serious. For Clover, “[this] is a small price to pay compared to the intense struggles that Palestinian’s face on a daily basis”. 

The longevity of Palestine Action is yet to be seen. Since their formation in 2020 however, they have been relentless and are yet to lose momentum. Industries relating to the manufacture of weapons, munition, defence and surveillance equipment is a colossal and thriving business. In fact, Elbit Systems reported that their revenue in the first quarter of 2023 alone reached $1.39 billion. Clover is in no denial about the challenges ahead but is confident and reaffirms the need to take action; “To allow companies such as [this] to operate in the UK, is to allow the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.” And he, and others involved in Palestine Action, refuse to allow that to continue unchallenged. Together, they won’t stop until they Shut Elbit Down. 

~ Aidan Frere-Smith

Feature image: A Palestine Action activist in part of the occupied woodland.

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