Why We Occupied the British Museum

On Sunday, activists occupied the British Museum to demand that it end its partnership with BP after Israel granted the energy firm gas exploration licenses off the coast of Gaza. Here, the activists write about why they occupied the museum.

British Museum, London, England. (Claudio Ciabochi / Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Over the last four months, countless solidarity groups have emerged with different proposed strategies for the best way to target and disrupt British complicity in Israel’s settler-colonial project. We are acting from the imperial core, where militarization, global capital, and politics are heavily dependent on the world energy market. We have chosen to respond to the call from Palestinian workers, trade unions, and civil society groups for an international energy embargo on Israel as a renewed tactic to end Western imperialist backing of Israel’s colonial genocide.

Inspired by previous successful energy embargos, including the 1973 Arab energy embargo on countries that backed Israel, and Yemen’s recent humanitarian intervention in the Red Sea, we launched our “Energy Embargo for Palestine” campaign with three central aims:

  • Put political pressure on British politicians to call for a cease-fire
  • Threaten business interests by making energy markets volatile
  • Disrupt imperialist militarization by blocking access to energy that fuels Israeli fighter jets, army tankers, military vehicles, and more

These aims inspired our occupation of the British Museum on Sunday afternoon alongside the Free Palestine Coalition, a network of grassroots activist groups including the Palestinian Youth Movement in Britain, Sisters Uncut, and Black Lives Matter UK. The action commenced at 12:30 p.m., as participants staged a sit-in, taking up space in the main foyer and chanted demands for the museum to drop its sponsorship from British Petroleum (BP). Protesters held banners that read “British Museum, drop BP!” We called for an end to the British Museum’s renewed ten-year partnership deal with BP and dropped leaflets from the stairs that detailed the gas licenses issued to BP off the coast of Gaza.

Last October 30, a few weeks into Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza, Israel granted twelve licenses for gas exploration off the coast of Gaza to BP and five other companies. BP, formerly the Anglo-Persian oil company, has a long history of imperialism in the Middle East and Africa. Although these gas reserves fall within Palestinian territorial waters, over the past few years Israel has fired at any Palestinian fisherman who goes farther out from three nautical miles of the shore in a bid to claim the area with a view to stealing the gas. While BP opportunistically utilizes Israel’s colonial genocide as a smoke screen for their profit-making enterprise in the Eastern Mediterranean, millions in Gaza are forced to line up for days on end to access fuel in order to cook basic meals. In the wake of the International Court of Justice finding that there is a plausible case that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, BP’s acceptance of gas exploration licenses makes them complicit in colonial looting and exposes them to legal challenges. For us, British Petroleum was a natural first target for our embargo campaign.

While occupying the museum, we also denounced the silence of British cultural institutions on Israel’s destruction of cultural and educational sites in Gaza. We read the poem “If I must die” by Dr Refaat Alareer, a Palestinian poet murdered by Israel on December 6, 2023. We declared that we will not stop our actions at the British Museum until they end their partnership with BP.

Energy companies play a central role in powering domestic arms production and fueling Israel’s imperialist militarization that murders and displaces Palestinians. Energy companies also enact Israeli settler-colonial expansion; only recently, during COP28, Israeli energy company NewMed committed to plans to build and operate renewable energy plants in Palestine and occupied Jawlan.

In Britain, several politicians have stakes and investments in the energy companies that are profiting from Israel’s colonial genocide. Six MPs have shares in BP that are worth close to £120,000 combined. In fact, Akshata Murty, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s wife, is a shareholder in her family’s firm Infosys, which recently signed a £1.5 billion deal with BP. To fight for an immediate cease-fire and an end to the genocide of Palestinians, we recognize that we must halt the energy used to fuel Israel’s imperialist militarization, which will simultaneously threaten the economic interests of the British political establishment that is predicated on the dispossession of Arabs from their land.

BP has multiple partnerships with cultural institutions across London and the UK. Despite BP or Not BP’s successful efforts in ending the British Museum’s previous contract with BP, the British Museum has once again announced a ten-year £50 million partnership with British Petroleum. British Petroleum cannot be allowed to “greenwash” its colonial crimes by creating an “Energy Center” in the museum focused on a low-carbon transition. The museum’s pledges for incremental steps toward a “low carbon transition” are but meaningless gestures when they have partnered with an energy company responsible for several carbon bombs this decade and that profits from the mass murder of Palestinians fighting for national liberation.

When over two hundred historical and cultural sites in Gaza have been destroyed and hundreds of Palestinian academics, poets, and artists have been murdered, we say that there can be no business as usual when cultural development in Britain is sponsored by ethnic cleansing, Arab cultural erasure, and genocide — carried out with the blessing of British energy companies. We will not stop targeting and occupying the British Museum until they end their partnership with BP. And then, we will target every single one of BP’s partnerships until its colonial looting and presence in the Red Sea ceases.

We heed the words of the assassinated Palestinian revolutionary Ghassan Kanafani: “‘Imperialism has laid its body over the world, the head in Eastern Asia, the heart in the Middle East, its arteries reaching Africa and Latin America. Wherever you strike it, you damage it, and you serve the world revolution.”