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Why We Took Direct Action Against Apartheid

A Palestine Action activist who occupied the roof of the Elbit Systems weapons factory in Leicester writes for Tribune about their protest – and the importance of exposing Britain's complicity in Israel's apartheid.

In the early hours of 19 May, four members of Palestine Action scaled the roof of the Elbit Systems factory in Leicester, with the intent of halting the site’s operations. I was one of this group.

For some members of the team, this was our first time taking direct action. From the days preceding the action right up to jumping fences and climbing steep ladders, we were terrified. What kept us going was an unshakeable conviction that we were on the right side of history, and that what we were doing had to be done.

We took the rage we felt seeing Israel heighten its military offensive and said no to complicity. The inspiration we felt when considering the resistance of the Palestinian people and our anger at what was happening in Palestine were the motivation that carried us through what were some of the most challenging moments of our lives so far.

Elbit Systems have operated uninhibited in Britain since 2005. As Israel’s largest private arms supplier, they currently have ten sites in England, including five factories. These factories produce the weapons we’ve seen used relentlessly on Palestinians in recent weeks; the consequences are children murdered, and mosques, hospitals, and schools reduced to rubble.

For every Palestinian, these scenes merely represented a continuation of the status quo. It ought not to be controversial to declare that the Nakba never ended. You need only look at the facts to see how a policy of apartheid and ethnic cleansing has raged on for 73 years.

We live in Britain, so when faced with the scenes in Gaza, we asked two questions. First: what is our role in the colonisation of Palestine? For this we must examine our nation’s complicity and outright support of Israeli settler-colonialism. Second: how can we challenge this complicity and support?

Today, America has largely assumed the role of protector and provider for Israel. As of November 2020, it has provided Israel with an astonishing $146 billion in aid. But Britain is by no means innocent: our government continues to provide unwavering support to Israel, including in the form of continually allowing Elbit to operate on British soil.

Elbit produces the drones that rain hell on Palestinians, the white phosphorus that burns flesh to the bone, the bullets that murder children. It provides border surveillance not only in Palestine, but across the US-Mexico border, and their equipment is being trialled for the monitoring of British waters. This is on top of their supplying of arms to fascistic governments in countries such as Brazil and the Philippines.

Despite years of petitions, protests, and letters to MPs, no change has been brought, and Elbit continues to operate here. This is why we took it upon ourselves to occupy one of their factories.

When we got onto the roof, a hysteria overtook us. We laughed, because we had continuously doubted whether we would make it, yet there we were, bringing the factory to a grinding halt. Jumping between hyperventilating from the sheer adrenaline of our action, and a euphoria from offering small but concrete opposition to murder.

While the others began to set up base, Sami and I laid in a state of semi-paralysis, clinging to the metal roping that decorated the roof. The two of us hugged one another, lit a cigarette, and watched the sun rise.

It was clear that we had mass support from huge numbers of Leicester’s population from day one. By the third day of our action, the supporters had grown to over five hundred. The support was so much more important than we anticipated. The constant presence of warm, principled people, their endearing words and displays of solidarity meant a great deal, and made occupying the roof infinitely easier.

In total, the roof was occupied for six days, Palestine Action’s longest ever occupation. I went down with Sami on the third day in order to ration supplies; despite having a ‘duty of care’, the police denied us food and water, opting instead to use it as a bargaining chip and to arrest supporters who tried to throw up water bottles. Alongside this was a campaign of intimidation, harassment, and feeble attempts to turn us against one another.

Once Sami and I came down, we were arrested. The two remaining occupiers were forcibly arrested on the sixth day, and our homes were raided while we were in custody. This was intimidating—even terrifying at moments—but I hold no regrets. You can never fully prepare yourself for how the state comes down on you. The only thing you can do is steel yourself against it. We had made a stand against murder and terror, and that knowledge strengthened us – nobody could take that from us.

They called us criminals, but we know who the real criminals are. They throw everything at us – tapping our calls, enacting non-stop harassment, raiding our homes and locking us up. This all simply means that what we’re doing is worrying to them.

The British state strikes fear in those who rebel, but their attempts to suppress dissent will never succeed. What started out as four people occupying a factory roof turned into an act of internationalism similar to the dockers in America, Italy, and South Africa, who have refused to load arms headed to Israel. Indeed, firefighters refused to aid police in removing us, with local workers’ leaders openly declaring their solidarity with Palestinians.

Israeli forces have pummelled Gaza in the previous days, while settlers have held mass demonstrations calling for the eradication of Palestinians. This won’t ever stop until Palestine is free. In Britain, members of Palestine Action believe that our role is in shutting down operations like Elbit Systems. We will not rest while Britain collaborates with apartheid, and we won’t be scared into submission. We shut Elbit down – someday soon, we will shut it down for good.