At 5:00 a.m. on November 10, four hundred trade unionists and Palestine solidarity activists converged on an unassuming industrial estate in Rochester, Kent. They had come in early morning to blockade the gates of BAE Systems, a prominent British defense and aerospace company.
The company makes 13 to 15 percent of the parts for F-35 stealth combat jets. These aircraft are currently being used in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza that has already killed at least eleven thousand people, of whom over 4,500 are children or teenagers. The trade unionists and activists, who call themselves Workers for Palestine, blockaded a site that manufactures the active interceptor system for the jets that allows the pilot to direct the plane.
The protesters blocked vehicles and turned workers away at the gates, explaining the reasons for their presence. Sonali, a writer and trade unionist who was part of the blockade, told Jacobin that she was moved to act because “we have seen carpet bombing of one of the most densely populated places on earth, where around 50 percent of the population are under eighteen. People who have no army. What we’re seeing is not self-defense; it is the most barbaric collective punishment.”
This was in fact the second action taken by the group. Already on October 26, some 150 trade unionists and activists blockaded the factory of Instro Precision, a subsidiary of the Israeli weapons company Elbit Systems, also in Kent. Jeanine, an activist with the Palestinian youth movement and Workers for Palestine, told Jacobin:
This is part of an international day of action and there are material consequences to what we are doing here. By shutting down this factory, even if only for a few hours, we have stopped parts of war planes going in and out. And we know that the way these weapons are constructed requires precision in terms of timing . . . so we have caused massive disruption.
Refusing to Help Israel’s War
Israel’s use of the planes against the occupied population in Gaza is surely lucrative business for British arms manufacturers. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) values the contracts for the British-made F-35 components at £336 million since 2016. CAAT also estimates that between 2018 and 2022, there were £146 million in declared arms sales to Israel — though there may be further sales through “Open General Export Licences” that allow unlimited quantities to be transferred without transparency.
Staff arriving at BAE Systems on November 10 were met with protesters denouncing these spoils of war, chanting “your profits are covered in Palestinian blood.” Pro-Palestinian hip-hop, like the music of British rapper Lowkey, blared out as cars were turned away from the gates. One man tried to press on with his vehicle, but the crowd held firm, and he was turned away. Other staff variously appeared either annoyed or congenial, but made no attempt to cross the blockade. A worker told Jacobin that privately he thought the protesters had a point — but claimed that 80 percent of the factory’s business was for commercial airlines, not for military application.
One protester was Zad, a member of the London Renters Union; her family is of Lebanese origin, but were displaced by a previous Israeli bombing campaign. She told Jacobin that “absolutely I think that [unions have a duty to support actions like this]. Unions in Palestine have asked workers to do that. Workers in the arms factories have a huge amount of power. If they said they were going on strike until there was a cease-fire that would change the game entirely”.
Around the world workers have taken Zad’s advice. In Belgium, the transport workers’ unions have issued a statement refusing to handle Israel-bound military equipment passing through Belgian airports while “genocide is under way in Palestine.” Similarly, dockers in Barcelona have refused to load or unload any military material and port workers in Genoa, Italy refused to handle weapons and blocked the San Benigno border checkpoint to prevent shipping company Zim from moving arms to Tel Aviv.
Britain is a particular hotbed for Palestine solidarity, especially when compared to similar countries like France and Germany. One major reason is that one of its largest social movements in the last quarter century was Stop the War. Founded to campaign against the 2001 war in Afghanistan, this coalition then mobilized millions to protest against Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War, which began in 2003. To this day, Stop the War retains an impressive capacity to call people out into the streets. Britain’s historic role in the creation of the modern Israeli state is also an internal driver of Palestine solidarity. In recent years, Jeremy Corbyn’s unwavering commitment to solidarity with the Palestinian people became a persistent albatross for the 2015–20 Labour leader. But it also had the effect of introducing a new generation of activists, politicized by his leadership, to the Palestinian cause.
Since it became clear that Israel’s response to the October 7 Hamas attacks was to be a siege of Gaza, seemingly intent on ethnically cleansing the Palestinian population, a spectrum of different types of actions has emerged in Britain. The bulk of this action has taken place on the streets, with hundreds of thousands marching and holding rallies demanding a cease-fire. Some of these crowds then flow out into London’s train stations, holding them for an hour at a time, disrupting trains in an attempt to draw attention and deliver consequences for a government that refuses to back a cease-fire. Further along the continuum are the blockades of arms factories and then — at the most contentious end — the sabotage actions against Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems by Palestine Action.
This direct-action group formed in 2020, but according to activist Huda, “We are intensifying our actions against the Israeli war machine in this country. We have always tried to be proactive because it’s constant, what is happening in Palestine, but certain moments require higher levels of intervention.”
Palestine Action’s work is focused primarily on combating the manufacture of drones. Huda told Jacobin that “The military drones they use are constantly surveilling people in Gaza [and were even] before October 7. It has been going on for a long time. They are constantly surveilling [Palestinians] and they are equipped to carry missiles. The same drones that they can hear every day, that are watching them every day are the same drones that could be massacring their families, and we know that in this country we are building parts.” Huda claimed that engines for the Hermes 450 drone are manufactured by Elbit Systems subsidiary UAV Engines in Shenstone and that parts of Israeli Merkava tanks that are being used in the Gaza incursion are made in Tamworth. She added, “You can route [these arms] back to weapons factories on our doorstep.”
Palestine Action’s tactics range from climbing on to the roofs of factories and smashing the air-conditioning units, breaking into facilities to smash the equipment inside, or blockading entrances like Workers for Palestine has begun doing. It also pursues secondary targeting through occupations and pickets of suppliers to the sites. As a result, Palestine Action is no stranger to the legal system, and while it has had some losses in the courts, its activists have also been acquitted on grounds of intervention to save lives. This August, Palestine Action activists who had locked themselves to vehicles blocking the entrances of UAV Engines and threw paint over the gates during an ongoing camp at the site were acquitted of all charges. Freedom News reported that “the Judge found their action was proportionate compared to the crimes against humanity they were acting to stop.”
Huda told Jacobin that the arms manufacturers
are the war criminals, profiting from genocide, testing weapons on an occupied people, maintain an illegal occupation. Nothing about what they do is either legal or moral. So, for us it is a necessity to take these types of actions. For example, if someone’s house was on fire and someone broke the window to save [them], no one would care about that window. For us it’s the same principle. Their property is immaterial compared to Palestinians’ right to be liberated from a seventy-five year apartheid regime and military occupation.
In August, it was reported that the Israeli embassy attempted to lobby Britain’s attorney general to intervene in the court cases of Palestine Action protesters to “bring about prosecutions”.
Back at the factory in Rochester, protester Jamie told Jacobin that this would not be the last action. He said,
whether you’re a worker who wants to refuse to load weapons or someone who wants to block these buildings, I would encourage anyone to do it. There are Elbit factories in Kent, I know there is one in Bristol, I know there are at least three in Leicester. If you’ve time off, if you’re a student, get down and block these factories. Absolutely [there will be more actions by us], we’re hoping that this will inspire more.
As the killing in Gaza continues, it seems that material action to dismantle Israel’s war machine isn’t going away either.