Protecting death factories
Tony Greenstein reports on his arrest and week-long detention over a planned direct‑action protest against Elbit, a notorious Israeli arms company
If you have been wondering why my blog fell silent for two weeks, then wonder no more. In the early morning of Tuesday March 9 I was arrested, together with five other supporters of Palestine Action, whilst driving a van to a factory of the Israeli-owned Elbit Systems in Shenstone, Staffordshire. We were intent on redecorating the premises of Elbit in the blood-red colour of their victims.1
We were taken to the nearby Oldbury holding centre and held for 27 hours before being brought before magistrates in Birmingham and Wolverhampton. The company that built the centre describes it as a 60-bed suite “complete with en-suite rooms” - although there are other, more accurate, descriptions of a facility designed to separate those it holds from each other and the outside world! Oldbury is a purpose-built exercise in sensory deprivation.
We were separated from each other and given no access to the outside world - though news of a demonstration was leaked to us. We had no newspapers, TV or any reading material. Our watches were taken from us. The food consisted of cheap, packaged meals, which must have cost at least 30p each.
It was not until the afternoon that I was taken out of the cells to be interviewed by a member of the West Midlands police and a Metropolitan policewoman. The Met woman asked questions about the structure of Palestine Action and she was clearly from what used to be called Special Branch. Evidently this is part of a coordinated attempt by the police to crack down on any action directed at the operation of the Israeli arms company, Elbit.
At 2.30am I was charged with going equipped to commit criminal damage. I had not been allowed a phone call, as is stipulated in the regulations, and I asked why not. I was told that this was because my wife, Fiona (from whom I am separated), had told them that she wanted nothing to do with me. At the time I believed it and was taken aback, to put it mildly.
It was only in Winson Green, where I was remanded, that I was informed by prison staff that Fiona had been ringing - she was worried about whether I had access to my drugs. It was then that I realised that I had been lied to as part of a campaign to demoralise me. I intend to take legal action for personal injury as a result of this demonstrable lie.
We were all charged with conspiracy to cause criminal damage and being equipped to do so. Four of us were sent to Birmingham magistrates court and two to Wolverhampton - I was amongst the latter. Whereas those sent to Birmingham were immediately bailed, those in Wolverhampton were remanded in custody by the resident bigot of a magistrate. On March 15 the fifth defendant was released and the following day I was also given conditional bail, a curfew and the requirement to report weekly to Brighton police.
Winson Green prison, where I had been remanded, became notorious in 1975 when the Birmingham Six2 were met by a ‘reception committee’ of warders who beat them up.3 This followed similar beatings by the West Midlands Police. The prison, however, has changed from those dark days. Although it was frustrating being remanded, Winson Green was far more tolerable than being in a police cell. The food was much better and we had a TV in the cells and association with other inmates - although we were locked in a cell for 23 hours a day because of Covid, which is rampant in the prison.
Being a recipient of a liver transplant, I have to take immune-suppressive drugs each day. This was not possible at the police holding centre and thus in the early hours of Thursday morning, handcuffed and accompanied by two prison warders, I spent six hours at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth accident and emergency department, where eventually I was given a week’s prescription, which had to be collected later that day by another warder.
I was pleasantly surprised that one of the questions asked at the prison was whether I was a racist! I did not see any sign of racial abuse from warders, nor did I witness any racist banter among inmates. Another series of questions concerned whether I was an extremist! I had much pleasure pointing out to the warder that all those who have fought for democratic rights in the past, such as the suffragettes, were called extremists in their time. It was an interesting conversation with a warder who was not unsympathetic to my line of reasoning.
Not only were there large numbers of black and Muslim inmates, but there was a considerable number of black warders. It was quite a contrast to my previous experience of being on remand - nearly 50 years ago at Ashford Remand Centre (long since gone). There you were stripped naked at reception and all the black prisoners were physically assaulted by the white warders (there were no black warders then, of course).
Nature of police
Having access to a TV in our cells meant that I could catch up on the news and, sure enough, the main headlines concerned the alleged murder and kidnap by a Metropolitan policeman of Sarah Everard, as she was walking home. PC Wayne Couzens had spent some two and a half years in the Met and clearly found his fellow officers and the Met’s institutional misogyny congenial. It is alleged that fellow officers had covered up the fact that Couzens had exposed himself twice in a McDonald’s restaurant two days before Sarah’s murder.
It was not surprising that officers from the Met should object so strongly to vigils in support of Sarah Everard that they attacked a peaceful vigil at Clapham Common, using the Covid regulations as an excuse. The BBC excused the Met’s behaviour, explaining how the police “were faced with a very difficult decision”. There was, of course, nothing “difficult” about the decision. Every day the police use their discretion not to enforce the law, when it comes to matters such as the illegal evictions of tenants, racial harassment or allowing fox hunting. The police are and always have been selective in relation to which laws they enforce. That is why fox hunts still continue.
No doubt the Waffen SS faced ‘difficult decisions’ when faced with trainloads of Jews being sent to Auschwitz. Not having the necessary accommodation, they were no doubt ‘forced’ to kill them!
The Metropolitan Police - like all police forces, only more so - has always been a political body. No-one forced the Met to collaborate, illegally, with building employers in blacklisting militants on building sites. As even the BBC observed, “A secret police document has revealed how the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch helped the illegal blacklisting of trade unionists - preventing them from getting jobs because of their political views.”4
The police set up the Special Demonstration Squad in 1968 and Peter Francis, who infiltrated anti-racist groups between 1993 and 1997 for the SDS, has shed unprecedented light on his former unit, illuminating, for instance, how undercover officers routinely formed sexual relationships with campaigners and stole the identities of dead children.
The SDS officers were a law unto themselves. Their targets were almost exclusively on the left, along with environmental and animal rights groups.5 Their targets did not include the far-right which has repeatedly been involved in bomb plots and terrorism. The SDS is now subject of a judicial inquiry but that is not expected to go anywhere.
The attack on the women’s vigil at Clapham should be a lesson to all those who believe that all that is necessary is to introduce more women or black people into the police. The Met is headed by a woman commissioner, Cressida Dick, whose only difference from her male predecessors is the lack of a dick.
Returning to my own case, my trial and that of the others arrested is likely to take place in November, Covid permitting. There is going to have to be a coordinated defence strategy and a campaign against what are clearly political charges. Our arguments are based on the common law defence of necessity and duress.6 In essence they are that you can commit a smaller crime to prevent a greater crime. For example, if you smash down a door to rescue someone from a fire, then you are committing ‘criminal damage’ to prevent something much worse. Likewise, if you spray red paint over the factory to highlight the blood that its products spill, then that is a lesser evil.
Elbit is quite upfront. It boasts that its drones (‘unmanned aerial systems’ or UAS) are “the backbone of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) UAS force”. Its main selling point is the experience it has in testing systems in the field. Gaza is where it perfects such technology.
On December 6 2017, Citizen Lab published a detailed report that showed that Ethiopian dissidents and journalists in the US, UK and other countries were targeted by sophisticated commercial spyware sold and operated by Cyberbit, a wholly owned subsidiary of Elbit Systems. In a reply to an inquiry from Human Rights Watch on the topic, Cyberbit did not deny selling this kind of technology.
One of Elbit’s primary customers is the Philippines, whose president, Rodrigo Duterte, is an open admirer of Hitler. This did not stop him being shown around Israel’s holocaust propaganda museum, Yad Vashem, in 2018.7 Israeli professor Dan Blatman has described Yad Veshem as
a hard-working laundromat, striving to bleach out the sins of every anti-Semitic, fascist, racist or simply murderously thuggish leader or politician like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Italy’s Matteo Salvini.8
The Diplomat has described how Elbit won its first contract in the Philippines for the supply of upgraded armoured personnel carriers in June 2014.9 In August 2020, the Philippines airforce received full delivery of three Hermes 900 and one Hermes 450 UAS as part of a contract worth approximately $175 million. Each system consists of three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a ground control system and support equipment. In October 2020, Elbit won further contracts to produce 18 tanks and 10 tank destroyers.
Then there is India. Goldie Osuri of Warwick University described in her article, ‘Kashmir and Palestine: archives of coloniality and solidarity’,10 how in 2018, as part of Adani Global’s alliance with the Israeli company, Elbit saw the inauguration of a UAV or drone manufacturing facility in Hyderabad servicing the Indian and Israeli defence forces, which may be used in both Kashmir and in Palestine.11
One of Israel’s core propaganda messages is its willingness to help India in its ‘war on Muslim terror’. This is based on the oppression of one ethno-religious category against aspirations for justice and helps reinforce communal oppression and conflicts within Indian society. Much of the money spent on Israeli ‘security’ is directly used in acts of repression in Kashmir and the north-eastern regions, which is similar to the Israeli repression of the Palestinian people. Added to which, Israel’s dealings with India have been embedded in corruption.12
The most surprising aspect of this relationship is India’s fondness of Israeli UAVs, even though they have a history of failures. After India first bought Heron UAVs in 2002, four of them crashed, killing one airforce handler (the first crash happened soon after induction in 2003). On September 14 2015, the Indian government approved the $400 million purchase of 10 armed Heron TP UAVs from IAI. With 22.5% of all UAV imports over the 1985-2014 period, India has topped the list of UAV importers.
In 2011, the Palestinian BDS National Committee, which campaigns for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, issued a call for a comprehensive military embargo. This included an end to military aid and weapons exports to Israel, as well as all forms of cooperation on military research. The call for a military embargo is now supported by political parties, NGOs, trade unions and campaign groups across the world.
The key impacts of the campaign include:
- More than a dozen banks have announced that they have divested from Elbit Systems over its role in Israel’s military violence, and the company has been blacklisted by many investment advice companies. In the UK Barclays has divested after more than 1.7 million people signed a petition organised by the US-based Avaaz campaign and there were occupations and other protests at the bank’s branches.
- Elbit’s participation in a Brazilian drone development effort was terminated at the beginning of 2016. This followed a 2014 decision by the Rio Grande do Sul regional government to end a large-scale research collaboration project with the company. Elbit factories across the world have been repeatedly blockaded by campaigners: it has lost out on deals in Denmark and France following such action.
- Several countries have reduced or cut military trade with Israel. South Africa has maintained a de facto freeze for the last decade, while the Norwegian government has an official policy of not exporting weapons to Israel. In 2010, Norway even refused to allow the testing, in its waters, of a submarine that a German company was manufacturing for Israel.
- Israeli participation in arms fairs has been contested across the globe, from the Netherlands and France to Brazil and the US.
- Especially in Brazil and the US, movements of black and marginalised communities have teamed up with Palestine solidarity activists to stop Israeli police training that reinforces and exacerbates police brutality, racism and repression.
The Jerusalem Post reported on March 2 that Elbit and two other Israeli companies - Cellebrite and Gaia Automotive Industries - supplied drones that were used in the Myanmar coup.13 Jerusalem was supposed to end all military exports to Myanmar, after allegations emerged that weaponry was being sold to the army.
The New York Times published a report which revealed that “Israeli-made surveillance drones, European iPhone-cracking devices and American software that can hack into computers and vacuum up their contents” were used by the generals to carry out their coup despite various sanctions and international arms embargoes, which prohibit such systems from being exported to the country. It added: “The military is now using those very tools to brutally crack down on peaceful protesters risking their lives to resist the military junta and restore democracy.”14
The report found that Elbit, which claims to have had “no dealings with Myanmar since 2015 or 2016”, supplied spare parts to repair military-grade Elbit drones in late 2019.
Meanwhile, in 2018 Israel was supposed to have blocked all military exports to Myanmar. Reports had emerged that Israeli weaponry was being sold to the army, which was accused of using them in genocidal actions against the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority. The Independent reported that “Israel has been accused of continuing to sell military equipment to the Myanmar military, even as it faced accusations of war crimes against minority Rohingya Muslims.”15
The Israeli foreign ministry has denied media reports that it had sold advanced weapons to Myanmar and rejected any “alleged involvement in the tragedy in the Rakhine region”. But that was a lie. When Israel’s high court was petitioned to prevent arms sales to Myanmar, the government sought and obtained a gag order on the court’s own ruling! In other words it is a criminal offence to even publish it. Despite all this, there are still some people who describe Israel as just another ‘western democracy’.
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh since a military crackdown was launched in August 2017. The United Nations denounced it as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.
The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz has reported that “Welcome to the Myanmar navy” was the caption on the Myanmar navy’s Facebook page, in honour of the arrival of an Israeli patrol boat to Myanmar’s shore.16 The post continued: “The Super-Dvora MK III is moving forward at 45 knots on Myanmar waters.”
Extinction Rebellion has published a report, headlined ‘UK-based Israeli arms factories smashed and blockaded on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration’.17 It quoted from a press release issued by Palestine Action in December 2020:
Israel’s UK-based arms company Elbit Systems woke up to two of their key factories smashed, sprayed and painted red by Palestine Action on the morning of the Balfour Declaration anniversary. Simultaneously, activists are blockading Elbit’s other subsidiary, UAV Engines in Shenstone, forcing three of their weapons factories to shut down.
These multifaceted ‘hits’ against Israel’s largest arms company have set a new precedent for sustained direct action, involving hundreds of activists from up and down the UK. Palestine Action - a new and rapidly growing movement challenging the UK’s unwavering support for Israel’s apartheid regime - have set out to symbolically de-commemorate the 103-year anniversary of the fateful Balfour Declaration.
Palestine Action’s statement goes on to describe Elbit as a company which openly markets its weapons as “battle-tested” on Palestinian civilians. As this article has noted, it is supplying the world’s most notorious repressive regimes, including India’s current occupation of Kashmir.
Both the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency, as well as the UK police, have been trialling Elbit’s drones to mass-survey large stretches of our coastline, in line with Priti Patel’s militarisation of the English Channel. The EU’s border agency, Frontex, has also contracted Elbit to survey the Mediterranean - a move which could put migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, fleeing war-torn countries, in mortal danger. (The European Union was recently accused of ‘watching migrants drown’ rather than investing in ways to save them.)
Elbit Systems also played a key role in the development of Donald Trump’s militarised US-Mexico border wall, while the very same technologies are also being used to securitise and control the native O’odham people on Arizona’s indigenous reserves.
The legal context in which Palestine Action operates is that of ‘universal jurisdiction’ (UJ). There is a very useful briefing issued by Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights, headed ‘LPHR briefing on universal jurisdiction’.18 The precise definition of UJ, and the manner in which it is implemented, varies somewhat between different states. However, the fundamental purposive approach is that in the case of the gravest crimes under international law, accountability (in the form of individual criminal responsibility) should be provided for, regardless of the territory in which the offences were committed or the nationality of the alleged offender. The UK gives effect to the principle of UJ through statutory law. Section 1(1) of the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 stipulates:
Any person, whatever his nationality, who, whether in or outside the United Kingdom, commits, or aids, abets or procures the commission by any other person of a grave breach of any of the scheduled conventions, the first protocol or the third protocol shall be guilty of an offence”.19
Similar wording in relation to the offence of torture is found in section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which provides that:
A public official or person acting in an official capacity, whatever his nationality, commits the offence of torture if in the United Kingdom or elsewhere he intentionally inflicts severe pain or suffering on another in the performance or purported performance of his official duties.20
Under section 51 of the International Criminal Court Act 2001, it is an offence in England and Wales for a person to aid genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. This section applies to acts committed in England and Wales, as well as those outside the UK. Whilst the latter are exceptional, there have been some instances of UJ arrests and prosecutions in the UK for acts committed overseas.
In July 2005, an Afghan warlord named Faryadi Sarwar Zardad was found guilty of torture and hostage-taking in what was thought to be the first successful conviction in the UK for a crime committed abroad. The trial followed an investigation which involved UK police officers visiting Afghanistan to identify and take accounts from victims. Witnesses gave evidence at the Old Bailey trial via a video link from the UK embassy in Kabul. Upon conviction, Zardad was given a 20-year custodial sentence.
In January 2013, a Nepalese colonel, Kumar Lama, was arrested in East Sussex and charged with two counts of torture under section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, relating to incidents that had allegedly occurred in 2005, although the prosecution did not ultimately lead to conviction.
There has been a pattern of harassment21 of Palestine Action and groups like Extinction Rebellion, which took part in the Oldham occupation.22 Palestine Action is a new grassroots network of anti-racist groups and individuals taking direct action to end UK complicity with Israel’s colonial and apartheid regime. Despite foreign secretary Dominic Raab’s attempts to shut the group down, its popularity is growing both in the UK and internationally.
It has to date targeted Elbit over 40 times, and will routinely and systematically continue to escalate its actions until the British government and this evil arms company can no longer profit from the death of Palestinian civilians. The ultimate aim is to shut Elbit down and end all UK complicity with Israeli apartheid.
As Huda Ammori from Palestine Action has stated, “The oppression of the Palestinians and the Kashmiri people, of migrants and refugees, does not happen in isolation. It happens because of the colonial legacy of this country.”
Following the success of Palestine Action in raising the profile of the campaign against Elbit, you might imagine that the Palestine Solidarity Campaign would lend its support. But not a bit of it. The PSC executive, led by director Ben Jamal and its equally useless chair, Kamal Hawash, has done its best to undermine support for PA, distributing a distilled version of legal advice from Bindman’s Solicitors, as opposed to the legal advice itself.
The gist of the advice is that people or groups who contribute financially or otherwise to PA may themselves be liable. At a time when the government is proposing its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill attacking basic civil liberties, the PSC chooses to attack those campaigning against Elbit.
The group which controls PSC, made up by the subterranean Socialist Action and associated splinters, is fearful of any independent initiatives taken outside its control. That explains its backstabbing attacks on direct action. The PSC has even lobbied Omar Barghouti and the Palestinian BDS National Committee to try and get them to dissociate themselves from PA activists.
The advice that they give is basically rubbish. The police have never tried to charge people who fund groups that may go on to commit criminal offences. To raise this prospect is in itself an invitation to the state to extend its activities. Just as with the fake ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign, the PSC hauls the white flag of surrender in advance.
PSC on PA
The following was distributed to all PSC groups. My advice is to ignore it and treat it with contempt.
Kamel Hawwash and Ben Jamal outlined concerns about the activities of the group, Palestine Action, following discussion at PSC’s executive committee. A number of key partners, including the leadership of the Boycott National Committee (BNC) in Palestine, have discussed with PSC concerns about the activities of this group, and the risks to the wider movement. BNC have communicated these concerns directly to Palestine Action, and asked them to remove all references to BDS from their website, a request eventually complied with by Palestine Action.
PSC has sought legal advice about the potential liabilities arising from the commission of acts of criminal damage of high monetary levels (more than £5,000) and how these may also apply to those offering support to these activities, even if not undertaking the activities themselves. This advice included noting that section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 states that it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly damage property that belongs to another person. A person convicted of criminal damage can be sentenced to a maximum of three months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £2,500, if the value of the damage caused is under £5,000. If the value of the damage caused exceeds £5,000, a person can be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.
These liabilities potentially extend to both individuals encouraging or assisting criminal acts (including, for example, providing financial support) and organisations, including PSC branches that offered encouragement or assistance.
These concerns are not raised because PSC or the BDS movement are opposed to any form of direct action. Instead, they are raised because of the strategic and legal risks associated with the type of action being conducted by the group. PSC sought the advice to ensure it was discharging its duty of care to members to ensure they were aware of possible legal consequences of their association or support for Palestine Action's activities.
Irishmen falsely convicted of bombings and given life imprisonment, which was overturned in 1991.↩︎
See, for example, theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/nov/11/tariq-ali-spied-on-14-undercover-officers-spy-cops-inquiry-hears.↩︎
See Global Studies in Culture and Power Vol 27, 2020.↩︎
See, for example, mancunianmatters.co.uk/news/08022021-activists-take-aim-at-police-following-eight-arrests-over-oldham-arms-factory-protest.↩︎