After Years of Campaigning Against an Israeli Weapons Factory, It Was Direct Action That Shut It Down

Lobbying laid the groundwork. Invading the factory got the goods.

by Rivkah Brown

11 January 2022

A protester gives a V finger sign while being handcuffed by workers on a crane
Palestine Action activists are removed from an Elbit Systems factory in Oldham, Greater Manchester, January 2022. Photo: Palestine Action

In August 2014, Adie Mormech got a Facebook message he will never forget. It was from Wafaa, one of his former students in Gaza. “Adie do u remember Huda that was in your class in Afaq she was my friend”. Of course he remembered Huda: her humour; her quirkiness; how she’d come to class early to tell him stories; the gifts she gave him when he left; her excitement about her upcoming wedding. Huda, Wafaa wrote, was dead.

Mormech, an activist with Manchester Palestine Action and a committee member of Oldham Peace and Justice, taught Huda and Wafaa while volunteering in the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza between 2010 and 2011, and stayed in touch with them both. Wafaa told Mormech that Huda’s house had been hit by an Israeli missile and that she, along with her two children, husband and mother-in-law, were killed. In Mormech’s memory, Wafaa’s message said, “We’re all in pieces here.” In fact, she was far more grimly literal: “They became small peieces [sic] adie”.

It’s near-certain that the bomb that obliterated Huda and her family was manufactured by Elbit Systems. The Israeli arms company, the largest of its kind, supplies the state with around 85% of its land-based equipment, including the armed Hermes drones known to be used against Palestinian children. The company has played a critical role in facilitating Israel’s decades-long military occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of the Gaza Strip, and has consequently placed it firmly in the crosshairs of the pro-Palestine movement, which yesterday achieved a major win against the company.

On Monday, Elbit announced the sale of one of its five UK subsidiaries, Ferranti Power and Control, to TT Electronics for £9m. That’s £6m less than what Huda Ammori, co-founder of Palestine Action, estimates her group has cost the company. Since August 2020, Palestine Action has targeted Ferranti’s factory in Oldham, Greater Manchester with increasingly disruptive direct action, from paint stunts to rooftop occupations to machinery destruction. The group’s colourful protests have made national news and even attracted the ire of Israeli ministers.

Despite repression from local police – who have made 36 arrests since the first action, thwarting two in the process – Palestine Action not only persisted but escalated. So frequent have local protests become – weekly, since May 2021 – that Elbit made a rapid response agreement with the police. Officers were stationed outside the factory throughout Israel’s bombing of Gaza in May 2021; the following month, Palestine Action infiltrated the building once again, this time doing £500,000 worth of damage and forcing the factory to close for a number of weeks. The assault was relentless – and it paid off.

Yet while Palestine Action has been the engine of the Oldham campaign, it has not acted alone. “Targeting the Oldham factory, for us, was the logical thing to do,” says Ammori, who was brought up in nearby Bolton. One reason for this was there was already “support on the ground” when Palestine Action arrived.

Laying the groundwork.

Elbit bought Ferranti Technologies, along with the Oldham factory it occupied, for £15m in 2007. It would be another nine years before the acquisition attracted any serious or sustained attention from local activists. Manchester Palestine Action (unrelated to Palestine Action) formed in 2014, around the time of Operation Protective Edge; Mormech joined not long afterwards. The group first protested outside the Oldham factory in 2016.

From this protest grew a slow but steady campaign, including meetings with councillors and MPs, stalls, petitions and freedom of information requests. Both Mormech and Ammori cite the local Asian population – many of whom were already sympathetic to the Palestinian cause – as helping the campaign to gain a foothold in the area. The group’s efforts were passionate but polite: the most trouble they caused was to blockade the factory entrance and spray “Free Palestine” on its steps in July 2017. The action made the local news.

Though the campaign may have instigated a “sea of change” in Greater Manchester, Mormech understands why it failed to inspire more broadly. “I think a lot of people have seen the sort of ritual of … very contained demonstrations … speeches and talks, and a lot of people didn’t feel like that was for them, partly because … they want to actually get in the way of this now. They’re not seeing change quick enough.”

Palestinians take action.

Palestine Action was borne of this frustration at the lethargic pace of much of the pro-Palestinian movement. The daughter of a Palestinian father and Iraqi mother, Ammori feels Israeli apartheid as personal injury: her great-grandfather was shot and killed by a British soldier shortly after the Balfour Declaration was issued; her great-grandmother was pregnant with her grandfather at the time. Politics was in her milk; by the time she got to university, she was a confident activist.

Ammori founded Manchester University’s boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, which recently forced the administration to divest £10m from Caterpillar. In 2018 and fresh out of uni, she became campaigns officer for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. There, she would lobby MPs and receive the same tired responses: either they would profess sympathy untethered from any actual political will, or they would give a standard response about the need to “recognise Palestine” within a two-state solution.

Ammori quickly became disillusioned with the institutional approach: “Although there were significant victories along the way,” she says, “it just didn’t feel as if it matched the severity of what was happening to the Palestinian people.” She felt the need for action acutely: “When the situation is so urgent, there has to be more done.”

There was still one last hope of change. In 2019, the Labour party committed to an arms embargo in its election manifesto and seemed like it might actually win the power to implement it. When Corbyn lost, any remaining glimmers of faith Ammori had in making change from within the system were snuffed out – but something else was ignited.

In July 2020, Ammori and a group of other activists founded Palestine Action. As the name suggests, their aim was to pressure state and corporate actors from without. The group decided to focus their strategy on a single company – Elbit – to maximise their efficacy, and to operate primarily via acts of civil disobedience – the sort of tactics Ammori credits Extinction Rebellion with having “normalised”. Palestine Action was not, however, the first to train such tactics on Elbit.

#StopElbit bears fruit.

Maren Mantovani sits on the international secretariat of the BDS National Committee. Speaking to Novara Media from Portugal, she points out that Elbit was among the first targets of the BDS movement after its founding in 2005. Since 2007 – and with increasing intensity since 2011, when BDS called for an international military embargo on Israel – activists around the world have disrupted Elbit’s operations in multiple ways, and with remarkable success.

Now in its sixteenth year, the campaign has seen gradual but consistent victories: examples Mantovani gives include the Norwegian state pension fund’s 2009 divestment from Elbit and the Brazilian government’s cancellation in 2014 of a major contract with the company (though the Bolsonaro government has just signed another). In a grim coincidence, while his former student’s family was being bombed with Elbit weapons in Gaza, Mormech was occupying the company’s factory in Shenstone alongside eight other activists.

Palestine Action has since also targeted Shenstone, as well as a number of other Elbit sites, including in Leicester and Bristol. There are many possible reasons why their campaign in Oldham has taken off where others have not, but one of them is clearly the years’ worth of thankless, unspectacular outreach and campaigning undertaken by Mormech and others. The BDS movement, like practically all successful civil rights movements before it, has relied on a blend of tactics to win. “I think action and community mobilisation are the perfect duo in terms of targeting these factories,” says Ammori. “And the community mobilisation around Oldham has been brilliant.”

Still, Mormech says Palestine Action has given the campaign the push it needed to get it over the line. He hopes that after Monday’s victory, the “establishment organisations” that “have always looked down on direct action … acknowledge this crucial and courageous mobilisation.”

“Believe me,” he says, “I’ve done all the different aspects of this campaign. They’re all important, but this is what turned the screw, no question about it. If we ignore that, we’re ignoring how to win.”

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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