Business Department Blockaded in Protest at Arms Exports to Israel

An arms embargo from below.

by Polly Smythe

1 May 2024

Activists blockading the Department for Business and Trade on Wednesday morning. Polly Smythe
Activists blockading the Department for Business and Trade on Wednesday morning. Polly Smythe

Hundreds of activists have blockaded the Department for Business and Trade to protest the government’s refusal to suspend the sale of UK arms to Israel.

Activists organising under the banner of Workers for a Free Palestine blocked the entrance to the department, which grants export licences for the sale of British weapons to Israel, on Wednesday morning. Civil servants were blocked from entering the department and police were deployed to disperse the activists.

The action is part of a coordinated May Day blockade, with protesters also shutting down three arms factories across the UK.

Tania, an organiser for Workers for a Free Palestine, said: “If arms company bosses and Britain’s political elite won’t impose an arms embargo, we, the workers, will enforce it from below.”

“British workers are enforcing an embargo through direct action,” an organiser said, describing the action as a “people’s arms embargo”.

In London, the police made three arrests. A Metropolitan Police statement said: “We are policing a protest in Admiralty Place and Horse Guards Parade. Officers have made three arrests after protesters blocked access to a building. Protesters must stay within the law.”

While Canada, the Netherlands, Japan, Spain, and Belgium have suspended the sale of arms to Israel, the British government has refused to halt weapons supplies.

Civil servants who oversee arms export licences have requested to “cease work immediately”, over concerns that they could be complicit in war crimes in Gaza.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents civil servants, is considering taking legal action against the government “to prevent members from being forced to carry out unlawful acts.”

PCS head of bargaining Paul O’Connor said: “We believe that the UK government has an obligation to do all it can to halt the onslaught. As it does not appear to be willing to do so, we are seriously considering taking legal action to prevent our members from being forced to carry out unlawful acts.”

Activists blockading the Department for Business and Trade on Wednesday morning. Polly Smythe
Activists blockading the Department for Business and Trade on Wednesday morning. Polly Smythe

Three arms factories across the UK were also blockaded by Workers for a Free Palestine protestors. All three sites – BAE Systems at Samlesbury Aerodrome in Lancashire, BAE Govan in Glasgow, and BAE Glascoed in Wales ­– produce components for F-35 stealth combat aircrafts, which are currently being used by Israel in its bombardment of Gaza. Activists reported that no vehicles were entering or exiting the sites.

Jamie, 32, who works at a Scottish university and took place in the action in Glasgow, said: “Even though the First Minister has said he supports an arms embargo, Scotland is still part of the chain of killing. And with Scottish arms companies having over 1000 secret talks with Westminster since 2012, we need action.”

The May Day action comes in response to a call from the Palestinian Federation of Trade Unions for the international labour movement to “disrupt the flow of commerce and trade that sustains Israel’s military occupation.”

In a statement, the federation said: “As the ones directly affected by arms manufactured and moved internationally, we simply ask you to embrace the principle that an injury to one is truly an injury to all.”

The blockade comes days after news that the high court will hear a legal challenge later this year against the government, for granting export licences for the sale of British weapons to Israel.

Lawyers for the groups behind the legal action – Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organisation, and Global Legal Action Network – argue there is a “clear risk” that the weapons “might be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law” in Gaza.

Shawan Jabarin, the general director of Al-Haq, said: “The government’s decision to continue supplying Israel with weapons to continue its military aggression against men, women and children in Gaza is effectively arming Israel to completely decimate the Gaza Strip, reducing Gaza’s vital civilian infrastructure to rubble.”

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.

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