‘That’s the power of direct action’: an interview with Palestine Action

On Feb 1 2021, Palestine Action and XR North shut down the Elbit Systems factory in Oldham. John Nicholson (a Manchester-based Palestine solidarity activist) and Max Stein held a conversation about Elbit, Palestine and direct action tactics with Huda and Richard from Palestine Action.

Photo shows the Elbit weapons factory on the day of the Feb 1 2021 Palestine Action action. The factory is sprayed with red paint and activists are standing atop a balcony over the doorway dropping a "shut Elbit" banner.
MERCURY PRESS. 01/02/21. Oldham, UK. (Pictured: Activists from Palestine Action and Extinction Rebellion have occupied the entrance to Elbit Ferranti in Oldham, protesting against the arms dealers business with the Ministry of Defence.)

John: I thought it might be just good if you started by telling us a bit about what’s going on in Palestine, and why it’s important for the British Left.

Huda: I think one of the crucial things is remembering that Britain was the starting point for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, and the Balfour Declaration was a statement giving away the land of Palestine, making it a Jewish homeland where 97% of the indigenous population was not Jewish. Before that, Jewish Palestinians, Christian Palestinians and Muslim Palestinians lived alongside each other, peacefully. This made way for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, as we saw in 1948, when more than half of the Palestinian population were ethnically cleansed.

To this day, the system of apartheid and ethnic cleansing continues. We see, for example, in the West Bank, Palestinians constantly face the threat of their home being demolished. Children in order to go to school have to go through checkpoints, where many Palestinians are shot and killed.

Gaza has been under a brutal blockade now for over a decade. They’ve been trapped under what even David Cameron’s called the world’s largest open-air prison, where they are not allowed to leave and people can’t enter, in a violation of international law. And on top of that, we’ve seen several times Israel bombing the captive population of Gaza, where the majority of the population are children, and refugees who’ve been displaced from other parts of Palestine. In 2014 Israel killed 2200 Palestinians and over 500 children in just 50 days.

A lot of these murders were done by drones, and 85% of Israel’s military drone fleet is supplied by Elbit Systems, who actually use this as an opportunity to test their weapons and market their weapons as ‘tested’, to sell to other oppressive regimes across the world. Specifically, when we look at Elbit, they have 10 sites here in the UK, and they’ve been given permission by the British government to operate here, manufacture components for their weapons here, and also benefit from deals with the UK authorities.

So, for example, the same drones which are tested on Palestinians in Gaza, are now being used to surveil and stop migrants from seeking safety and refuge in the UK. The UK police forces are now trialling this technology to surveil everyone in the UK with the same drones which are used to constantly surveil Palestinians.

John: I think those Elbit drones are being used in the US as well for surveillance against Black Lives Matter protests, and so on. What’s your own background? How did you get into this?

Huda:  Well, I’m actually Palestinian on my father’s side, and Iraqi on my on my mother’s side. My own father was actually forced out of his home when he was a child. He was with his younger brothers and sisters; they were hiding under the table of their front room in 1967, when the Israeli military came and started shooting into their house. They had to crawl from the back of their house without shoes on, just the clothes they had on their backs, and run and hide in caves for several days, before they left and eventually made their way over to Iraq.

I think if you ask anyone with Palestinian heritage, they have a very similar story, if not much worse. Every Palestinian story roots back to Israel’s apartheid regime. On both sides of my family we’ve seen the devastation of war and weapons, which the UK has continued to profit from. It is essential that we use our privilege here in the UK to take direct action to shut these sites down ourselves. The Government has been a key part in sustaining these regimes, rather than being a solution, and it’s only going to change when the people rise up and take the power into their own hands.

John: What were you trying to achieve when you set up Palestine Action? What are you trying to do at the moment?

Richard: We had done isolated actions against Elbit, and that’s how I got involved. I was an environmental and anti-militarist campaigner. I lived in Kent, really near an Elbit factory. I didn’t know that much about Palestine before I found out about the factory.

There were numerous instances of sporadic actions and direct actions, closing factories maybe once a year or twice a year, for a number of years. And eventually we decided, as a group “Okay, this is fine. This is good stuff that we’re doing. We’re shutting the evil factory; we’re making a small difference. But that’s not enough.” And, learning from other movements – I was involved in Extinction Rebellion at the very start – learning from some of those movements to say: “How can we have a coordinated and strategic approach to trying to shut this factory down? How can we bring people together? And how can we make a mass movement of people involved in direct action?”

I think the timing was right,  the post-Corbyn era with young people feeling disillusioned and feeling “What can I do?”, learning from other movements, and saying: “Okay, we can get masses of people out on the streets, we can get masses of people to shut these factories down, we can do it repeatedly and sustainably.”

That was our goal and our way of bringing people in, to make it a movement, showing that we can take the power into our own hands. This is one of those moments in history when you go “Okay, now is the moment to drive this forward, to get direct action to bring people in, and have a coordinated, strategic and professional approach to this”. We’re having success with that strategic and focused approach: one company to start off with, before we go on and end the whole Israeli apartheid regime.

John: Do you think direct action can succeed? Some people say “It’s not going to be successful, just shutting a factory for a day or two, here or there.”

Huda: While I agree that shutting it down for a day or two once a year wouldn’t be sufficient to actually hit their profits enough, it’s unprofitable for the company if their reputation is damaged. The power of direct action is, we don’t have to wait around to ask the Government to shut these sites down. If we built a movement big enough to shut down a factory day in, day out, the next week we’re back, two weeks later we’re back, they would have to shut down. I think that’s the power of direct action.

Once you have managed to successfully force out Israel’s largest arms manufacturer from a country which has been extremely complicit in the apartheid regime for over 100 years, it sets a precedent for all of the companies operating and profiting from Israel’s apartheid regime. You start seeing a ripple effect.

That’s part of our strategy: we build our movement around Elbit Systems. Not only because they profit from the fact that weapons are tested, but they’re exporting to other oppressive regimes. I think it’s really a movement for everyone who cares about humanity and social justice as a whole. And then we move on to the next companies, until we get to a point where they go “We can’t, it’s so unfavourable to work with Israel’s apartheid regime.”

Richard: I would also say that we’ve studied the history on this. We’ve spoken to people who’ve written PhDs on civil disobedience and direct action. And it does work.

We have examples such as the Freedom Riders, who started with eight people envisioning the future with no segregation: sitting on a bus together, and people joined them and 500 ended up in prison. And then suddenly, segregation comes down, and JFK talks about it. The suffragettes are another example – smashing every window in Oxford Street, considered radical and extremists at the time, and now glorified by everybody.

We don’t appeal to governments, but after a while they have to listen when they have so many people out there doing things. The literature saying there’s three important elements of a direct action. One is its sacrificial nature, that people are willing to risk arrest, going to prison for this cause. That brings in more people. The second is the dilemma that you pose to the authorities, the police and the companies themselves: “Do we take them to court?” The third is causing disruption, whether it be to the companies, as in our case, or within wider social movements, to the public at large. We think having those three elements is crucial. It’s summed up in that famous quote by David Graeber, that protest is like begging the powers that be to dig a well, and direct action is digging the well yourself and daring them to stop you.

Max: One thing that rs21 has tried to advance in our trade union work is the demand for an industrial transition and particularly a green transition away from arms manufacturing and using industrial skills and industrial facilities for something good instead. So, I wonder if that’s something that is featured in the anti-Elbit campaign and whether that might be the basis for some kind of contact with any of the any of the workforce.

Richard: Definitely. We are talking with lots of environmental movements about environmental activists joining in to shut down this company, and having that real message of demanding moving to green technology. And I think that’s a really simple message that gets it across.

It is definitely something that is on our agenda, and some of our upcoming stuff will really highlight that. And that phrase, what is it? “War causes climate change, climate change causes war” is one I think that would be more and more to the forefront, bringing in both the peace and environmental movements.

John: Historically, the Elbit factory in Shenstone started by making motorbikes, and the motorbikes used to deliver things. But, do you get some opposition to the idea of direct action? Because it might put some people off?

Huda: I think with Palestine Action, we’re very clear that we’re a direct action movement, and we do want more and more people to come up and do the direct action activities, because that’s what we need to shut the factory down.

Our movement is very focused on building a direct action movement, but amongst that, there are different roles people can take: support roles, arrestee support, helping us with fundraising, and all of those other things. So there’s a place for everyone in Palestine Action.

We are clear that our tactics are direct action, but we don’t discourage people from putting up petitions, or doing protests, or using traditional campaigning methods. Every social justice movement that’s been successful has had an element of all of those. But what we’ve had a massive void of is sustained direct action in the Palestine movement, in the anti-colonial movement from Western countries, which essentially began this mess.

Our opinion in Palestine Action is that many of us have tried petitions, we’ve tried the lobbying groups, etc. But while businesses continue to profit from the oppression of the Palestinian people, while it’s more convenient for them to turn a blind eye, then we’re not going to see the change we want just by those methods. We’ve had some victories of the BDS movement and the International Solidarity Movement along the way, but I personally feel like it’s been a bit stagnant.

What we really need to do is build a grassroots movement, which matches the severity of Israel’s apartheid regime. Once you start seeing people internationally putting their liberty at risk for a cause, which may seem distant to everyone else… If the Palestinians in Gaza had the arms manufacturers in front of them, they’d be on the roof of it, doing everything to stop those weapons. But the arms manufacturers are not there. They are here, where we are, where it started. We have so much power to stop these weapons manufacturers, and that’s what we want to focus on and build.

Photo id of a Palestine Action activist sitting against the door of the Elbit weapons factory, dressed up warm and looking determined.
MERCURY PRESS. 01/02/21. Oldham, UK. (Pictured: Activists from Palestine Action and Extinction Rebellion occupied the entrance to Elbit Ferranti in Oldham, protesting against the arms dealers business with the Ministry of Defence.)

John: Tell us, what support do you need from the Left? You’re going to have people facing charges from the British state.

Huda: So we have a trial on May 17th at Stafford Crown Court. Our argument is about Elbit’s war crimes, and that’s what we’ll be raising continuously in the court case. If we’re found ‘not guilty’, it opens up a whole can of worms about Elbit operating here in the UK.

But generally, in terms of support, we want people who can join us. We run direct action workshops, three weeks out of four, every Thursday. People can join that and see how they want to get involved in direct action. We also are starting to hold creative action workshops once a month, which also includes elements about arrestee support.

And we also need money. Lots of it, ideally. [laughter] I mean, you’ve seen it yourself. Most third-party platforms shut down our donations. People are still generous enough and we’re finding ways around it to get the funds in. Actions cost money, but not nearly as much as we cost Elbit Systems. Every day we shut them down we cost them around £50,000. And that cost is just around £500 to £1000 to shut them down really. It’s a good return in terms of investment. Also, the State keep taking our laptops. We often need to replace our devices.

Max: So when people have been arrested, the police have secured warrants to confiscate your laptops, as part of their investigations. Is that right?

Richard: Yeah, they used to do that under a Section 17 power, which means if they were to arrest someone, they don’t need a warrant. Me and Huda were also arrested at a border and had ours confiscated under terror legislation. There are ongoing cases: one case at Shenstone and others. They’ve charged us spuriously with conspiracy with various other people. We’ve also seen people just taking photographs at actions who’ve been arrested and had their computers taken off them, despite there being no evidence they even took part.

Max: Wow. You’re very stoic about it, but this is really quite a wide reaching and authoritarian violation of people’s rights and their privacy by the State.

John: I don’t think you should minimise the potential aggression of the State at the moment. I think it’s very instructive what Priti Patel has been doing and saying. This is the woman who’s virtually incited gunboats in the English Channel to deter migrants. And there is the escalating pressure of charges against Extinction Rebellion activists; I think about a thousand people are facing charges for really trivial offences. Generally speaking the Crown Prosecution Service will drop that kind of stuff after having arrested people. The fact that Priti Patel wants to carry on with that is a warning to all of us involved in action that this could go a lot, lot further. So, yes, you’re right. There’s a lot of interference by the State at the moment.

Max: One hopefully slightly more positive counter-example from recent years was the Stansted 15 trial, which resulted in quite large numbers of people standing outside the courthouse in Essex where the trial was taking place. This seems to have played a role in at least leading to nobody getting prison time. [Since this interview took place, the convictions of the Stansted 15 have been quashed by the Court of Appeal.]

John:  Huda, you’ve been in court a few times, where there’s been a good presence of activists in the court and outside. Would you say that’s helpful to you?

Huda: Yes, definitely. I think when you’re under arrest in the cell, sometimes when you just hear chants outside it really ups your spirits. And from the court cases, and having people there supporting – it’s crucial, and it’s also part of building the movement overall.

Just three weeks into the launch of our movement there was a meeting between the Israeli minister Benny Gantz and Dominic Raab, where we were specifically mentioned. Ganz asked Raab to crack down on us and stop what we were doing. As a result, I think we’re seeing a lot of repression happening to activists.

But I think the message overall is that if we all join, if we all do this, it’s safety in numbers. The more people that join, the harder it is for them to crack down, and the harder it is for them to go, “Okay, it’s these few people” because I don’t think the police understand the horizontal movement, or how that can work. They always try and pin down what they see as the inner circle. But the more we grow, the more decentralised we are, it will becomes impossible to crack down and stop the movement. So that’s where we’re hoping to get to.

Richard: And I think that’s crucial for things like the court case, because the court case can easily become about the people who are involved in the court case. Whereas actually, if we have 200, 300 people outside, then it’s easier to make this about the movement as a whole rather than the individuals who are on trial. And that’s why having those people there is crucial; it does send a message. It definitely influences judges and people in authority when they see that there’s a popular movement and not just some people they can label as kind of crazies. That’s really key.

 

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