Block the Factory

Ben Whitaker

On July 6 the sun rose to the news that three arms factories had been occupied, and a fourth blockaded. All four factories are wholly owned subsidiaries of Israel’s largest arms company, Elbit Systems.

In Shenstone, Staffordshire, in the United Kingdom, two-dozen Palestinian solidarity protesters had locked themselves to each other on a main road approaching UAV Engines Ltd. Elbit uses this factory to make drone engines for export to Israel. The mass direct action, coined ‘Block the Factory’, had laid claim to the space surrounding the factory from about 4am. From 7am the numbers steadily rose to a peak of around 200 protesters, and the protest lasted until mid-afternoon, successfully blockading the factory and preventing it from opening. Production was also halted at Elbit’s Elite KL factory in Tamworth, and Elbit’s Instro Precision factory in Broadstairs, Kent, when groups of activists occupied rooftops. In Melbourne, Australia, a similar occupation took place.

The actions were coordinated to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, which consisted of a 51-day aerial bombardment and a land incursion. The attack was coined ‘Operation Protective Edge’ by Israel, in a doublespeak that would have done George Orwell proud, and was in reality a blatant act of aggression targeting both civilians and civilian infrastructure. The attack led to over 2,200 Palestinian deaths, the vast majority civilian, with over 500 child fatalities, and around 100,000 people have been left homeless. 26 schools were destroyed with a further 232 damaged, and over 50 hospitals and health facilities were destroyed or damaged. Many of Gaza’s factories were targeted and its only power station was severely damaged.

Elbit: war profiteer

Elbit Systems reaps its profits from its expertise in repressive military technology that has been tried and tested in a decades old military occupation in Palestine. In the occupied West Bank the company is a major supplier of the high-tech surveillance used at the Israeli Separation Wall. In contravention of international law and stretching for hundreds of miles, dividing families and confiscating large swathes of Palestinian land, when completed the Wall will have stolen over 9% of the West Bank. Given this, it should come as no surprise that Elbit has managed has managed to beat a host of American companies to a lucrative Homeland Security contract to further militarise the US-Mexico border fence. This includes provision of observation posts similar to the watchtowers found at regular intervals along the Wall in the West Bank.

Amnesty International published evidence in 2009, showing that Elbit’s UAV Engines factory is used to manufacture engines for the Hermes 450 drone, which the company itself markets as “the backbone” of the Israeli army’s aerial attacks and have been documented as being part of Israel’s deliberate bombing of Palestinian civilians last summer. Again, the company clearly capitalises on its expertise in facilitating war crimes in order to increase its profit share. Its marketing boasts that its drone technology is “combat proven”. And, it appears that this works - Israel has become the world’s second largest drone exporter. Tellingly, Elbit’s share price rose considerably after last summer’s attack, when the company’s deadly hardware had a chance to demonstrate its vicious effectiveness, ultimately paid for by the continued and considerable suffering of Gaza’s Palestinians.

Stop arming Israel!

Whilst Gaza’s residents continue to live in the rubble of their homes, still without access to building materials or proper medical treatment due to Israel’s siege, the UK government’s attitude to the Israeli arms trade appears to be business as usual. A recent investigative report by War on Want, Campaign Against the Arms Trade and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has shown that in the first three months after the end of the attack the Department for Business Innovation and Skills approved 32 military exports to Israel worth just under £40m. The first of these was granted just days after the ceasefire agreement came into effect, and export licenses continue to be issued despite almost daily breaches of the truce by the Israeli army, which include extrajudicial drone assassinations and almost daily gunfire at subsistence level fishermen and farmers trying to survive in desperate conditions. 

Although government data shows that engines manufactured in Shenstone are exported to Israel, the company claims that these are only installed in units that it exports to third countries, and are not used by Israel itself. Since the UK’s supposedly “rigorous” export control system essentially consists of taking companies with vested interests in repression, death and destruction at their word, statements such as this are impossible to actually substantiate and makes Elbit’s claims doubtful at best.

The Shenstone factory has been targeted by protesters before. At the height of Israel’s 51-day assault last year, nine protesters staged a sit-in on the roof of the UEL factory, closing it for two days in August and costing the company £186,000 in lost revenue. Yet charges of “aggravated trespass” were later dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service just hours before a deadline set by the court for the prosecution to release critical documents. The documents would have disclosed key details of the arms export licenses granted to it by the UK government, but two witnesses from the company were no longer willing to come forward with information. What is apparent is that UAV Engines and Elbit are not keen on having the details of their deals exposed to public scrutiny.

The UK protesters on July 6 all had the same simple message for the UK Government- stop arming Israel and stop buying arms from Israel. The protesters spoke of how they feel the UK government is complicit in war crimes against Palestinians by continuing to issue export licenses to companies making parts for Israeli weapons. They also feel strongly about not buying Israeli weapons and supporting an industry that has gained its competitive edge from using a captive civilian population as a testing ground.

Standing in solidarity

At the ‘Block the Factory’ demonstration the aim was to turn space the around the factory into a creative, educational and family friendly environment, a space for expressing solidarity with the Palestinians struggle for justice, freedom and equality, rather than a place where deadly weapons are developed for profit. Despite very heavy handed policing and a high court issued injunction requested by Elbit Systems (presumably in an attempt to deter the action and prevent public scrutiny), the demonstrators managed to run several workshops and arts & crafts sessions, provided a children’s space, and had musical performances and speakers. A strikingly diverse crowd was visible throughout the day- people of all ages and backgrounds stood in solidarity with Palestine.

Throughout the day there was a significant police line that continuously pushed and grabbed protesters, dragging them away and making arrests. Given this uncomfortable atmosphere, it felt like a testament to the resilience of activists that they remained both peaceful and resourceful enough to carry out at least some of the day’s upbeat program.

At approximately 2.30pm the police further stepped up their aggression eventually pushing protesters off the road and kettling them on the outskirts of Shenstone village, where an impromptu rally was held. A total of 19 protesters were arrested in an action that lasted around ten hours and succeeded in ensuring the factory remained closed for the entire day.

The day in Shenstone was not an easy one. Although arrests and police aggression was anticipated, the intensity of the police response was surprising for many. However, the large numbers that turned out and the protester’s insistence on a non-violent and creative resistance in the face of police violence was inspiring. It is clear that a diverse and robust movement is growing from strength to strength, one that demands the UK stops arming Israel and that stands with Palestinians in their struggle for justice, freedom and equality.