Four activists occupied a factory in Leicester last Wednesday, halting the production of arms and military technology used by Israel to commit war crimes against Palestinian people.
The direct action, which is entering its second week, targeted a factory owned by Israeli arms company Elbit in response to the ongoing and recent escalation of violence by the Israeli state in Gaza and the occupied territories.
The occupied site, which is run by UAV Tactical Systems, a subsidiary of Elbit and French aerospace company Thales, manufactures the Hermes drone which is used by the Israel Defence Forces in Gaza, as well as by military in Columbia, Azerbaijan and elsewhere. In 2014, one such drone killed four Palestinian children playing on a Gaza beach.
One of the occupiers, from activist group Palestine Action, spoke to Sophie K Rosa from the roof of the Elbit factory about why he decided to take part in his first direct action, police intimidation and how people can and must support the struggle for a free Palestine.
The colonisation of Palestine has been happening for over 50 years, and throughout that time, people in this country have been protesting and writing to their MPs to take action to stop it. However, we know that, for the most part, politicians in an imperialist, capitalist state are not going to recognise a free Palestine; they’re never going to stop the sale of arms to Israel or end Israel’s campaign of terror and colonisation, which has intensified over the past weeks.
Before we occupied the factory, I was terrified. But ultimately my belief in the need to challenge the war crimes that Israel is committing far surpassed my own fears. More often than not, traditional demonstrations are completely ineffective. Israel upholds the interests of Western imperialism – and the only way to challenge that is through direct action. Historically, pretty much every significant change that has ever happened is down to direct action. Apartheid in South Africa seemed like it would never be abolished, but through direct action, it finally fell.
The police have been intimidating us, trying to turn us against one another, trying to lure us down with cigarettes and hot drinks. They keep on information gathering, asking questions like: “How many of there are you? Where do you come from? Do you all know each other?” They’re trying to get us to say that one of us is the leader. But that won’t happen – we’re all in this together. They’ve been trying to scare us, saying we could die from hypothermia from a bit of rain. They keep on tripping over themselves and lying. But they can say what they want: we’re here to stay.
I heard that the police on the ground are getting more aggravated and have been trying to stop people from using their cameras. The fact that they’re so desperate to get us down shows that the solidarity between the four of us, and the solidarity shown to us by our supporters, scares them to death. In the time we’ve been up here, we’ve received so much support – in the media, online and actual physical support from outside the factory too.
A particularly beautiful example was when the Fire Brigade Union called on the fire worker operating the cherry picker intended to get us off the roof, to stand down in solidarity with Palestine and in solidarity with us as activists. We loved that. We had a massive Royal Mail lorry drive past multiple times, beeping. We’ve had support from people filming and chanting, shouting beautiful words up at us, and giving us so much encouragement. I didn’t even realise how valuable that would be until we had it. Looking out beyond loads of police to a sea of supporters, waving Palestinian flags – a group of people who all believe in the same cause – that’s really moving.
The building we’ve occupied is assembling drones to be used on Palestinian people. These drones are operated from a distance, which means that the people operating them don’t even see the people they’re targeting – the people they are going to kill. Elbit’s drones are also being trialled for use in order to monitor migrants entering the UK ‘illegally’. It’s appalling. Elbit also produces white phosphorus, which, if you’ve seen what it does to a body, then you’ll know that it should never be used at all, let alone on Palestinian children. Elbit are the worst of the worst, and our main goal is to shut them down.
When we first discussed the occupation, I’ll be honest, I didn’t think that shutting Elbit down was achievable. When you’re up against the terror of the state, when it’s so difficult to make change, when there’s so little political hope right now – it felt like too big of a mountain to climb. But since I’ve been up here – and seen the overwhelming support that we and the cause have been getting – shutting it down actually does feel like a possibility. We’re going to shut Elbit down no matter what.
We know that the tide is turning. Roughly 180,000 people turned out at the protest in London last weekend, which is, I think, the biggest turnout for a protest for Palestine since 2009. More and more people are waking up to the awful war crimes Israel is committing. We are calling on everyone to join Palestine Action – and to either take direct action or to support an action in any way you can.
We don’t know how Elbit is going to respond to this action, but we do know it generally doesn’t want to go to court because its war crimes could be brought up – as was the case with the weapons factory in the north of Ireland. It’s hard to tell right now whether the huge amount of support we’ve received will work for or against us in court. We have no idea what the impact of the government’s ‘crackdown’ on ‘crime’ will be – or how the expansion of the carceral state and the Policing Bill will impact how we are treated. There is so much uncertainty right now, but we knew that going in. Ultimately, speaking out against a decades-long genocide mattered far more than the risks taking this action posed to us.
We are asking people to carry on supporting us after we’ve been arrested and when we’re in court because that’s going to mean a huge deal. It doesn’t matter if they call us criminals. We know who the real criminals are.
The UK is complicit in Israel’s project of settler colonialism. This country has a long, bloodstained history of colonialism, and supporting and committing war crimes – like those being committed in occupied Palestine. As people living in the UK, we’re complicit too – unless we start speaking out against the violent injustice of Zionist settler colonialism. We can’t condone what the Israeli state is doing; we have to take a stand.
Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media, she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed.