Palestine Action are an activist group based in the UK with a simple goal: use direct action to shut down British complicity in Israeli apartheid. We had the opportunity to interview them about their goals, methods, and how they differ from activist groups around them.
Disclaimer: One of the members of our editorial team contributed answers as an interviewee because they work with Palestine Action. A separate team unaffiliated with PA edited the interview.
How was Palestine Action formed? What is your goal as a group, and do you see yourself as part of a wider movement?
Palestine Action was formed in response to a lack of urgency in Britain’s pro-Palestine politics, and often, a refusal to recognise that the powers that be have no interest in uplifting and supporting the Palestinian people. And why would they? It was British occupation and the Balfour Declaration that laid the foundations for Zionist settler colonialism in the region.
As such, in the Summer of 2020, a number of activists came together to launch the direct action network, which has since blossomed with hundreds of actions, mass support across the country, and some considerable victories to our name. Our very first action saw the storming of Elbit’s headquarters, 77 Kingsway — which we are proud to say is now permanently closed following our efforts.
The intentions were never merely to ameliorate the effects of the Israeli arms industry, but to build up a vast network of conscious and willing activists working to actually dismantle it. Over the last two years, the call to ‘#ShutElbitDown’ has been met with popular support for direct action to end Britain’s active support of the Israeli occupation — and so far, we’ve taken down an Israeli arms factory and their headquarters. That’s two sites of the original ten shut down.
A strong idea that circulates in Palestine Action is that of a revolutionary duty. One that we all hold (as citizens of the imperial core) is to actively resist the workings of British imperialism, and its sibling — Zionist settler colonialism. We’re simply upholding that duty. Palestinian liberation will of course be headed by the people of Palestine, whether they are in the resistance or civil society, but we have a role here in Britain that cannot be overlooked. It is often said that if those in Palestine could come here and shut Elbit down, it’d already be gone. So that’s why we’re here, and that’s what we’re about.
What does decision making look like in your group?
We can’t reveal too much about the group’s inner workings for security reasons. That said, decision making is premised upon members’ participation, experience, and history in Palestine Action. Apart from actions alone, there is a mountain of work that goes on behind the scenes, and this is done with a relative degree of autonomy. Agreements are often made within affinity groups, e.g. what they’ll do, where they’ll do it, and any other details.
Actions are carried out on a need-to-know basis, and in some instances, can be entirely autonomous — like covert actions. We provide guidance for these on our website, and encourage everyone to do so, so long as the action falls in line with our aims and principles.
What is it about your direct action that makes it more effective than approaches taken by other activists in the UK, either current or historic?
Prior to Palestine Action there were sporadic, non-destructive occupations of Elbit factories. On most occasions, the activists would in fact be allowed to go home at the end of the day, and by the next morning, Elbit was operating once more. This was because there was no dilemma presented to the company, and it was easier to let them go, allowing them to keep their low profile and get back to work. We took this flawed tactic and developed it — building a campaign of sustained, destructive direct action Elbit can’t ignore.
These factories are here, on our doorsteps, making weapons used to kill and maim. There is a simple solution: we force them to stop. And, through rooftop occupations, window-smashing sessions and paint-dousing, we have built great momentum — aided by community organising — without whom there would be no mass movement. We’ve made company operations untenable, spurred on hundreds to take action, and exposed Elbit’s business to thousands of people who want the killers gone. Arms dealers and war criminals are only welcome in Britain for as long as we welcome them.
What framework do you use to understand Palestinian liberation and how does this differ from dominant narratives about it?
Whilst we do not claim to have the answers, we have firm ideas about what support we can offer to the Palestinian cause. We talked more about this idea of a collective duty in the first question. It is compounded by an understanding that the daily reality of Palestinians is the result of British imperialism and Zionist settler colonialism.
We understand Israel has been constituted through continued land grabs, colonial subjugation, and the murder of Palestinians. Elbit is a key proponent of this and is hosted by Britain and a number of other countries. Therefore, resistance outside of Palestine, in our respective countries, is a necessity and a duty. It should first and foremost be levelled at the Israeli arms trade that enables this violence.
Many of us are also driven by an understanding of Elbit’s role in carceral systems, imperial hegemony and the subjugation of colonised/indigenous peoples at an international level.
What we can say about our understanding of & relationship with Palestinian liberation is this:
- Palestine will be freed by its own people, on its own terms. It will never be the place of other peoples to decide what liberation looks like.
- We follow their lead — to place ourselves at the front of the project of liberation would be laughable and paternalistic.
- We use what privilege we have here in Britain, as well as Britain’s legal framework, which is much more flexible — though still limited — to play our role.
- We understand Palestinian liberation will come from a diversity of tactics, both within and outside of Palestine. We will not condemn such attempts in Palestine.
You mention on your site and in tweets that you aim to stop British complicity in apartheid. What are these links between Britain and Israel, and how old are they?
Britain’s links to Israel have existed for over a century, reaching back to beyond the Nakba and the foundation of Israel. Some of the earliest examples can be found in Ghassan Kanafani’s book On Zionist Literature, which describes and analyses the existing relationship between British writers and literary Zionism in the 19th century, e.g. George Eliot and Benjamin Disraeli. On a political front, Britain's government endorsed Zionism through the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which supported Palestine becoming a ‘national home for the Jewish people,’ who at the time were a minority group, with no consideration for the native population. The British then established Mandatory Palestine in 1920 and for the most part set about prioritising settlers over the indigenous Palestinians. Since its establishment, Britain has retained a sympathetic relationship with Israel.
This history continues into the present day with all major political parties in Britain in support of Israel, even if they claim to oppose apartheid. Almost all our supermarkets buy and sell Israeli produce, funding this genocidal regime. Universities in Britain have links to Israeli ones, ignoring the calls from Palestinian civil society to boycott and divest from complicit academic institutions. British universities take money from an arms trade which has always oppressed Palestinians and also invest in it.
Crucially, the UK sells arms to Israel and helps fund its occupation of Palestine by allowing Elbit Systems to manufacture in the UK, and maintains several contracts with its subsidiaries. This means Elbit are manufacturing parts for weapons in our towns and cities which are ‘tested’ on Palestinian civilians in Gaza — where the majority of the population are children and refugees who have been displaced through brutal force from other parts of Palestine. Elbit uses the fact their weapons are ‘battle-proven’ on Palestinians as a selling point to export their lethal arms to oppressive regimes across the world.
You have taken action against the weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems for the part they play in the oppression of Palestinians. UK police forces and court systems have done what they can to stop you. How much of their response did you expect, and what would you say it has taught you about the purpose of policing in this country?
No one in Palestine Action was expecting the police to ignore us, but nonetheless the lengths the state has gone to stop our direct action have been shocking. Our co-founders Huda and Richard were stopped while entering Britain under counter-terrorism powers, denied the right to remain silent, and interrogated for several hours. Their phones and laptops were also seized. Richard noted that he hadn't been stopped at the border before despite being involved in Extinction Rebellion (XR) since its inception. While XR have also faced police repression, what Palestine Action members have gone through seems to be an escalation from the state.
British policing is heavily influenced by its colonial past so it makes sense that pro-Palestinian activism would be treated differently from other non-violent direct action. The fact that our actions target a highly profitable industry is also a factor in why their response has been so strong. In fact, Dominic Raab met with Israeli ministers to discuss Palestine Action and to stop our actions against Elbit buildings. Israeli police met Hackney police in London, part of what has been called ‘the deadly exchange’ where Israeli police exchange tactics and strategies for repression with other police forces around the world, such as the USA and the UK.
Eight activists present at the first actions, including Huda and Richard, also face a politically-motivated trial, starting from October 10th at Snaresbrook Crown Court, London. The most egregious charge is that of blackmail, stemming from letters sent to JLL (Elbit's former landlord in London) promising action if the lease was not cut, a tactic commonly used by protest groups. The maximum sentence for blackmail is 14 years in prison. Such a charge ignores the power dynamic of a few individuals (Huda, Richard, and Milly) compared to a large property company. We have stated that this trial is an opportunity for Palestine Action to prove that Elbit Systems are the true guilty party. [As this article was being written, on October 4, 2022, the court delayed the trial until November 2023. This is the second of two delays: more details are to follow. The next day, the case of the Kingsway 3 was also delayed. According to Palestine Action, this was because ‘Elbit failed to provide their evidence — postponing the case as Israel's largest arms firm hide from the dock once again.’]
Your direct action has successfully shut down multiple sites in the UK, and this success has brought you substantial national and local news coverage. How have your interactions with the media been, and what have these interactions taught you?
Like any pro-Palestine organisation, it can sometimes be an uphill battle against hasbara, which is Zionism’s ideological culture that aims to ‘explain Israel.’ Hasbara is a key part of Israel’s diplomacy and the aims of Zionist organisations, such as lobbying groups like AIPAC and the various Friends of Israel groups in the UK. Often western countries like the USA and the UK allow the conversation around Palestine to be dominated by this. This means it can be quite frustrating seeing mainstream news outlets repeat uncritically the lies told by Elbit. We often get our voices out through sympathetic and alternative outlets such as Al Jazeera, The New Arab, Electronic Intifada, and Mondoweiss.
As for learning, it’s an ongoing process of figuring out how to fight this uphill battle in the most effective way. Whilst our occupations draw attention, the established UK media will only give as much attention and coverage as they have to. So we seek to create a grassroots media campaign. We always record our actions, collaborating with independent photojournalists and using our own recording technology to ensure this. This means that footage of actions is always available to disperse. You’ll also see below some of the tactics we’re using to draw attention to the Elbit Eight case.
What advice would you give to those who would like to follow in your footsteps?
One of our members suggested this passage from Assata Shakur’s “Affirmation” they were inspired by. To quote Shakur:
'And, if i know any thing at all,
it's that a wall is just a wall
and nothing more at all.
It can be broken down.'
Sometimes, we build Elbit and institutions like them up in our head. We see them as invincible due to their immense power and backing. They have wielded great destruction and death in Palestine and across the world. But Elbit’s network of sites in Britain consists of factories, with gates, windows, and doors which can be locked, broken, and painted, and walls that can be scaled. We proved that if we disrupt Elbit on a weekly basis, it will prove more costly to stay put than to leave.
Through our actions, we’ve also drawn attention to how Elbit is propped up by a collection of companies like JLL, their landlord, and companies that deliver their weapons, like the Good Packing Company. These companies can also be disrupted, and landlords like Fisher German have had to close their Birmingham offices. So we’d say making visible all the companies and subsidiaries involved in Elbit is a crucial step towards shutting them down.
Is there anything you would like to add that we have missed?
Alongside our actions, which are always ongoing, we’re building support for the various trials coming up. To quote our site: ‘We take direct action against Israeli arms company, Elbit Systems, and their morally bankrupt accomplices, implicated in a killer supply chain. The damages are found in the loss of human life in Gaza, in Grenfell and all across the world.’ All of the trials can be found on our site. You can also keep checking our Twitter and our news section for more information.
There are Five Actions people can take to support us in these cases.
Pack the Courts — Mobilise to support our activists throughout the trials. Sit in as a trial observer or join other supporters outside the court. If you need logistical support to do so, email email@example.com with the subject ‘Court Support.’ Our site also has the addresses for the trials.
Spread the Message — share a picture of yourself holding up the following message:
‘I am _____ and I stand with Palestine Action. #ElbitIsGuilty’ You can fill in the blank with any self-identifier: your name, your occupation, or any other description. Some examples may be: “I am a teacher and I stand with Palestine Action. #ElbitIsGuilty” or “I am a youth organiser and I stand with Palestine Action. #ElbitIsGuilty”
Post your photos on social media with the hashtags #ElbitIsGuilty, #ShutElbitDown or a hashtag of the actionists, e.g. #Arconic2. Just remember we may use your image online or in print.
Sign the Open Letter — Organisations of all kinds, as well as notable individuals can declare their support for our activists by signing on to our open letter here. Circulate the open letter amongst relevant contacts.
Solidarity Statements — Have your organisation make a solidarity statement in support of us, it could look something like this:
‘_____ stand in solidarity with Palestine Actionists, who are going on trial on [Insert date of trial] against Israel’s largest arms manufacturer, Elbit Systems. We stand with you in the Palestinian struggle for life – #ElbitIsGuilty, #ShutElbitDown everywhere!
Send them into firstname.lastname@example.org and publish in social media, newsletters etc.
Take Action! — Whoever and wherever you are, we call on you to take creative and inspired direct action against Elbit Systems and in solidarity with Palestine Actionists being repressed. For anyone outside of Britain who is interested in taking high profile action (e.g. destructive action) contact email@example.com and we’ll get in touch securely.
If you take action, remember to grab a pic and send it in to infopalestineaction.org.