Palestine Action have won a major victory against British complicity in Israel’s war crimes: permanently shutting down an Elbit Systems weapons factory in Oldham. Sustained direct action against a consistent and material target is what made this possible—and is what we’ll use to shut down Elbit’s nine remaining sites in Britain.
Before we shut it down, the Ferranti factory in Oldham manufactured a range of high-end military technologies and weapons components, including the imaging and surveillance systems for Israel’s Hermes drones. These drones have been used regularly for bombardments of civilian targets in Gaza; they are the ‘backbone’ of the Israeli drone fleet, according to Elbit.
But the activists who took on Elbit’s business of bloodshed can now proudly say that, thanks to their actions, components for Israeli drones are no longer produced in Oldham. Over an eighteen month period since Palestine Action launched in 2020, activists occupied and dismantled the factory, chained gates, blockaded roads, threw paint and more to prevent operations at the site. Some of these actions saw the factory closed for repairs for weeks at a time, and in one action alone police estimated £500,000 of damages were caused.
The closure of the factory was the ultimate victory for these activists—but each action was itself already a victory, as each made a material impact on Elbit operations.
Direct action creates the conditions for its own success. In the immediate term, every day that the factory was occupied, blockaded, or closed for repairs was a day that Elbit couldn’t manufacture murderous drone technologies. And in the longer term, the total costs of these actions—massive damages, losses, security risks, and other disruption—built up to the point where continued profitability of the Oldham factory was compromised. Elbit were forced to close the factory and sold the Ferranti business for £9 million, a huge loss from the £15 million they paid to acquire it in 2010.
This is what can be done when direct action has a clear, consistent, and material purpose. Activists weren’t trying to make a scene, or get media attention. Nor were they trying to put pressure on politicians, or to convince the council to shut it down. They acted, directly, to stop the manufacture of weapons used for war crimes—and they’ve succeeded.
It should be said that Palestine Action haven’t acted alone, and that this outcome was only possible by collaborating with tireless campaigning by local community groups, including Oldham Peace and Justice and Manchester Palestine Action. These groups saw hundreds turn out weekly for protests at the factory, and the support they gave to activists was indispensable. Adding direct action to their efforts, and providing a physical challenge to the security and profitability of Elbit’s Oldham operations, was what tipped the scales.
Taking this action involves obvious risks. Thirty-six activists were arrested over the course of our campaign against Elbit in Oldham, and many have endured harassment, intimidation, and in some cases physical injury at the hands of the police. Some of these activists are currently facing criminal charges, and we have a dozen trials scheduled this year for people involved in actions at Elbit sites across the country. Given these risks, why do activists take it upon ourselves to shut down these factories? Because it is necessary and urgent to act, and because direct action is the only strategy that will work.
Allowing these factories to stay operative would be committing an injustice to the people suffering at the hands of Elbit products. After being ‘battle-tested’ on Palestinian civilians, Elbit products are then sold to repressive regimes across the globe. Elbit’s drones and military technologies enable popular repression in the likes of Myanmar and Kashmir. Their surveillance technologies fortify the brutal border regimes of the US, Britain, and the EU, while their weaponry has been used in devastating imperialist interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. These crimes and injustices are facilitated with British-made products: our relationship to this fact, as British residents, is what makes it necessary to act.
To meaningfully oppose these injustices, direct action is the only logical tactic to adopt. It would be self-defeating to appeal to the government to intervene, because the British state is itself complicit in Elbit’s brutality and in Israel’s war crimes. The British state has an extensive commercial relationship with Elbit, including hundred-million pound training and acquisition contracts, with Elbit drones used extensively by Britain’s military and border forces. These drones have even been trialled for domestic policing uses in Britain.
Alongside hosting Elbit on our streets, the government continues to offer its tacit geopolitical support for the crimes of Elbit’s best customer, Israel. In late 2020, Dominic Raab met with Israeli ministers to discuss how to silence anti-Elbit protests and actions. Meanwhile, the Oldham residents had never been consulted, or listened to, about whether they wanted a murderous arms manufacturer located on their streets.
Despite the Oldham community turning out en masse in opposition to the factory, and extensive lobbying by dedicated and diverse community groups, the state continued to cosy up to Elbit. Shoring up the government’s lucrative contracts with Elbit are the police and the CPS, working tirelessly to protect Elbit profits. This relationship will continue as long as Elbit proves useful to the government’s illiberal agenda of police control, suppression of migrants, and imperialist conflict. As long as this continues, direct action will be the necessary and legitimate response. As stated by direct action group Anarchists Against the Wall, who acted against construction of Israel’s apartheid wall, ‘direct action is the democratic act when democracy stops functioning.’
In cases of global, structural injustice—in which our government is a contributing partner—we can’t wait for politicians to intervene. We could lobby this government, and the next one, and the next one to take action—but all the while people in Gaza and occupied Palestine will keep suffering at the hands of British-manufactured drones and military technologies. The victory in Oldham has shown that we, collectively, have the power to take on Elbit Systems and to win, and we owe it to Palestinians to do so.