Forcing Elbit to close its Oldham factory shows the power of community organising, international solidarity and direct action

Demonstrators celebreate outside Elbit's closed Ferranti factory
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On Monday 10 January, campaigners announced that Elbit – Israel’s biggest private drone maker – will close its Ferranti factory in Oldham. The company has sold Ferranti business despite a massive £6m drop in resale value.

The shutting down of Elbit’s Ferranti factory in Oldham is the culmination of years of campaigning by local organisers in solidarity with Palestinians and Kashmiris.

The victory in Oldham should be a reminder of how powerful the combination of community organising and militant direct action can be.

And – for me – it reminded me of the people I’ve met whose lives have been torn apart by Israeli drones, and who have been calling for these factories to be closed down for years.

Elbit: profiting from the death-trade worldwide

Elbit manufactures around 85% of Israel’s drones which have been used to massacre Palestinians in Gaza.

For example – during Israel’s 51 day attack on Gaza in 2014 – Israeli drones killed 840 Palestinians. Drones were also used extensively in Israel’s 11 day attack on Gaza in 2021.

Elbit’s Ferranti factory in Oldham manufactured imaging and surveillance systems for Israel’s Hermes drones, which have been used to kill Palestinians in Gaza. Elbit is also responsible for manufacturing small calibre ammunition for the Israeli army.

Read on...

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The company is part of a joint venture to manufacture drones for the Indian army, drawing criticism from local people in Oldham – where there is a large Kashmiri population – many of whom are horrified at the prospect of “drones that were used in the bombing of Gaza” being “mass produced in India” and used in the repression of Kashmiri people.

“Campaigners must prevent these Israeli war crimes that kill our dreams and kill our children”

The news of the closure of Elbit’s factory also reminded me of a series interviews I carried out with another comrade as part of a Corporate Watch research project into Elbit in Gaza in 2013. We interviewed survivors of drone attacks and family members of Palestinians killed in Israeli drone strikes.

I remember Gazan mother and father Mona and Basil Ash-Shawa, whose 18-year-old daughter was killed when an Israeli drone fired a missile through the window of their living room a year earlier. They told me how they had failed to find any justice for their daughter through the Israeli court system and how it was up to campaigners to find that justice. Basil told us:

The death of my daughter was a war crime by the Israeli military. There is no excuse for it. When you have an 18 year old daughter that is a dream and that dream was killed. She was my only daughter. Campaigners must prevent these Israeli war crimes that kill our dreams and kill our children. When will it stop? Our case shows that Israel does not care about international law. People should take note.

I also remember the Abu Zor family, who we interviewed as they sat with their children amid the ruins of their house in Gaza City. They had survived an attack by an Israeli drone and an F16, which had killed three other members of their family. A female family member – who wished to remain anonymous – called on people internationally to take action against Israeli military companies operating internationally:

These weapons are being tested in Gaza on us. If they brought tanks to fight us they would lose but instead they bring warplanes. These kids now do not have a mother, if their father is sick, who will care for them? We do not need just words.

There is a big profit in it for Israel to market these drones. They want to be the strongest and selling these weapons helps them to do that. Other countries should not buy weapons from Israel. Israel wants war all over the world. We want these factories to be destroyed completely.

Years of campaigning

International movements have been taking the Palestinian struggle to the doorsteps of Israeli arms companies for many long years, in an attempt to heed the calls for solidarity from people like the Ash-Shawa and Abu Zor family

In response to Israel’s brutal occupation – and to the massive Israeli attack on Gaza in 2009 – Palestinian civil society groups called for a two way arms embargo of Israel in 2011. This two-way embargo demanded that states cease selling weapons to Israel, and also that they refrain from buying armaments from Israeli companies.

The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) calls for global campaigns against Elbit.

The movement in the UK begins to take off

Demands for the closure of Elbit’s UK sites snowballed during Israel’s murderous attack on Gaza in 2014, which killed at least 2,251 Palestinians. Direct actions against Elbit’s factories increased in momentum as Israel attacked Gaza. Campaigners occupied the roof of Elbit’s Shenstone factory on the Midlands, and they blockaded the gates with lock-ons at the company’s Kent premises.

The Canary spoke to two local organisers: Adie Mormech – a long time Palestine solidarity organiser from Manchester Palestine Action – and Wakas, from Oldham Peace and Justice.

Adie told us that the campaign against Elbit in Oldham started in earnest in 2016:

We started in 2016, and we’d done a lot of awareness raising with stalls and petitions and everything else – as well as the regular demonstrations.

Wakas said:

our first protest took place in 2016. So it’s nearly been a five year long campaign. Oldham Peace and Justice was formed in 2019, off the back of so many groups doing smaller actions.

Wakas continued:

I think [the victory in Oldham] just shows you that it’s all about the grassroots, it’s from the bottom up.

We didn’t get much cooperation from the council. We did get some support from some counsellors, and some support from MPs. But that was about it. And we did realise that if you were going to do it, it was going to be from the people. It was the community coming together to push out Elbit Systems of the town

Urgency

Adie has lived in the Gaza Strip – working as a teacher and organising in solidarity with Palestinians – for two years. He said:

Many of us – like myself – have been to Palestine. I was there in Gaza for two years. I saw what these weapons were doing. I lost a lot of people myself, including my own students. All this just increases the urgency of the actions – and that’s how it should be bearing in mind the crime that’s taking place.

According to Adie, the key to the campaign’s success was the combination of local organising with direct action:

it was only once serious direct action [started] to actually stop what the factory was doing – then the benefits of having such a great support base of local campaigning on the ground – local groups such as Oldham Peace and Justice and United For Palestine – paid off

Adie told us that he was part of a three day rooftop occupation of Elbit’s Oldham factory in 2019. But – up until then – actions at the Oldham factory had been “sporadic”. According to Adie, there was a “massive intensification” in the campaign once direct action group Palestine Action began to target the factory.

Palestine Action was founded during the first coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdown in 2020 with the aim of ending UK complicity in “the ongoing colonisation and military occupation, and subjugation of Palestine”. Since the group was set up, it has regularly targeted the Oldham site with the aim of closing it down. A statement from the group says:

The first action taken in Oldham by Palestine Action, in late August 2020, involved spraying premises in blood-red paint, symbolising the Palestinian bloodshed made possible with Elbit Ferranti technologies. Following this, actions accelerated. Windows were smashed in an occupation in November 2020, while an action taken in collaboration with XR North in February 2021 caused over £20,000 in damages. In April 2021, activists not only occupied the site but gained entry to the factory, smashing the roof, windows, air vents, and undermining future operations by covering equipment and computers in red paint – over £100,000 of damages were caused, and the site remained shut for well over a week.

On July 5th, three activists gained entry to the site, allegedly causing £500,000 of damage and closing the factory for a number of weeks. More recently, in August of this year, activists blockaded the factory – blocking roads with vehicles and locking onto gates – and occupied the factory itself again. There have been a number of other actions taken at the Oldham site, with the factory forced to closed for a significant number of weeks in total due to damage caused.

Palestine Action says that 36 people have been arrested for actions against the factory, but that none of them have yet been brought to court.

‘A crescendo’

In May 2021, Israel bombarded Gaza for 11 days running. An uprising began across all the parts of historic Palestine, and the international solidarity movement rallied to support it.

This Israeli attack marked a crescendo in the campaign – according to Adie – and led to the setting up of a group called United for Palestinians. From May, determination to close down the factory increased. Adie said:

A lot of the Asian families got involved locally after May. We had demonstrations every week from May until now – 30 weeks. Blocking the road every time and – of course – some terrific direct actions in January, February, April, and more

Adie said that the campaign pushed hard in Oldham to get the message out in local media, and on social media. He said that after May there were:

lots of great young activists rousing the community and making great speeches to come [to the demonstrations]

Adie said that the trick was:

Upping [the ante] so that we were taking the road every time… It wasn’t just about standing outside. We had to disrupt business as usual, because business as usual is creating these horrific weapons and killing machines purely based on the need to cause damage and destruction – that’s what their profit margin is depending on – on that level alone, that was the impetus to do a whole lot more… and it was all levels that we were upping it – and that’s where we win.

Persistence

Wakas told us that when people in Oldham took their first actions against Elbit, “the police and Elbit Systems thought it was a one off”. He said that it has been all about persistence and determination. According to Wakas:

It’s just been a campaign of being persistent and patient, and sometimes it looked like we were getting nowhere. And others it seemed like we got somewhere one step forward and two steps back… This campaign has always been like that. And it was just about who would buckle first. It was either Elbit Systems or it was going to be the people of Oldham. And the people Oldham have lasted longer than Elbit Systems!

Not the first time

This isn’t the first time that a concerted campaign by Palestine solidarity campaigners has closed down an arms company premises. In 2010, US arms giant Raytheon closed its doors after a years long local campaign in Derry in the North of Ireland. Campaigners protesting the sale of weapons to the Israeli state broke into the Raytheon on two occasions and – on one occasion – successfully destroyed computers and other equipment. Members of the Derry campaign visited Oldham in 2020 to speak to campaigners and to give inspiration for the campaign against Elbit.

It “took us all by surprise”

Wakas said that campaigners had been aware that the factory might close, but that the speed with which it happened was a surprise. He told us:

We had an inkling feeling that Elbit Systems and Ferranti Technology were on the way out. And we’ve known for a while that something big was going to happen. But the speed and the secrecy around Elbit Systems exit from all them, has took us all by surprise.

Adie and Wakas agree that it is a great victory, but that the struggle to push Elbit out of the UK will continue. According to Wakas:

It’s just so great. I’m lost for words. But at the same time, you’ve got to remember this is just one site, there are eight other places that Elbit profits from – including three factories – in England

The company also operates out of the ParcAberporth drone testing facility in Wales.

Adie agrees with Wakas’ point:

Its a wonderful wonderful day – its a wonderful achievement. But there’s a whole lot more to do, its just one factory, there’s a lot more around the country. We are hoping that this is the green light for more action, a domino effect… We are hoping that that [this] can take place around the country and we can finally get all these Elbit arms factories out.

“Palestinians are not struggling alone”

Campaigners held their weekly demonstration outside the Oldham factory for the last time on 11 January, except this week the demonstration was a celebration. Shahd Abusalama – a Palestinian woman who is originally from Gaza but now lives in the UK – was one of the revellers. She told The Canary:

I was just at the rally party in front of the no longer Elbit factory! The atmosphere was electric, and many people came from other cities in the UK! The best street party I attended with such a diverse crowd of few hundreds I’m guessing, all celebrating Elbit-free Oldham.

Such grassroots-led organisations revive our hope and reassure us that we the Palestinians are not struggling alone. They also remind us that it seems impossible until it’s done, with the people’s will and power.

Elbit has repeatedly dismissed the demands of the local community in Oldham to leave their town, and its presence has inflicted a lot of emotional distress on them throughout the past 5 years of consistent campaigning to shut Elbit down, knowing the central role they play in the oppression of the Palestinians and the Kashmiris and other oppressed communities around the world. But they never gave up and continued to protest week after another, inspired by the persisting Palestinian anti-colonial resistance against British and Zionist colonisation of our lands.

Now Oldham people don’t have to put up with having Elbit so close to their homes, schools and workplaces, but there are 9 other Elbit sites remaining in the UK, and many more around the world. Until [they are gone] the struggle to shut Elbit and all profiteers of oppression continues, and so does the struggle to free Palestine!

Featured image is of the final celebration outside what used to be Elbit’s Ferranti factory, via Adie Mormech (with permission)

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