Case against Palestine Action collapses again

A police officer takes away a handcuffed woman, turning to speak to two others behind her

Police arrest a Palestine Action activist they suspect of spraying blood-red paint on the exterior walls of UAV Engines, a subsidiary of Elbit Systems.

Martin Pope SOPA Images

On 22 September, five Palestine Action activists were due to attend court for a plea hearing, after taking action against Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems this summer.

However, before proceedings had even commenced, the five were informed at the very last minute that all charges had been dropped. It had been ruled by authorities there was “not enough evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction” in their case, Palestine Action representatives have confirmed.

The five activists were arrested in early July for criminal damage and aggravated trespass, after shutting down Elbit’s UAV Engines factory in Shenstone, Staffordshire in the west Midlands of England.

They splattered the factory, its gates and external security with red paint, symbolizing the blood of Palestinians, and chained themselves to the factory gates.

The site was left inoperable. Elbit was forced to temporarily halt its manufacture of drone components, such as engines.

The company supplies roughly 85 percent of Israel’s drone fleet.

The Shenstone factory, UAV Engines, makes components for drones, and is a fundamental part of Elbit’s investments in Britain.

Drones with Shenstone-made components include the Watchkeeper, used by the British Army in foreign wars and by the UK Border Force for surveilling and harassing migrants.

As such, the site has long-been a target of Palestine Action’s fury, and the July effort marked just the latest broadside in a wide-ranging campaign of destroying Elbit facilities and making business as usual impossible.

Along the way, a number of the group’s activists have been arrested, but subsequent prosecutions similarly failed.

In February, four activists walked free, likewise on the grounds there was “no realistic chance of conviction.”

Watching the detectives

One of the Shenstone Five, an activist who wishes to be called Randeep, isn’t particularly surprised by the news.

Randeep is nonetheless slightly irritated that the charges were dropped after he bought train tickets to attend the plea hearing at some expense.

“This further confirms what we already knew. We are not the criminals, and frustrating Israel’s colonization of Palestine is not only a moral duty, but a legally sound one,” he said in a statement.

Another defendant, Richard Spence, told The Electronic Intifada the state’s conclusion there was “not enough evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction” is particularly notable, given neither he nor his fellow activists made any effort to evade arrest, or denied taking action. In other words, an open-and-shut case, if they’d actually done something criminal.

“The CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] must have learned after others taken to court for targeting the same site were found not guilty that there is no justification for punishing activists who are defending human rights,” he said.

To date, multiple Palestine Action activists have been arrested and prosecuted for breaking into Elbit sites and those of its suppliers in Britain.

Just one case has resulted in a successful conviction. The activist in question received a conditional discharge for three months, and a negligible fine of just $25.

It is rare for cases to even reach court. In one such instance in December 2021, three activists – who had also targeted the Shenstone site – were found not guilty of criminal damage, after a two-day trial.

Lawyers for the three activists, including the Palestinian attorney Mira Hammad, successfully argued that while their actions did constitute damage to the factory, it was not criminal in nature, but a proportionate action to prevent much more serious crimes in Palestine.

At the time, Palestine Action co-founder Huda Ammori argued the ruling amounted to the court backing the group’s campaign. According to British police estimates in August, and as reported in a short film about Palestine Action, the group had inflicted over $22 million in losses on Elbit sites across the country in the span of a year.

Challenges ahead

Still, there are major legal challenges ahead for the group, and its activists. In all, 13 separate prosecutions of Palestine Action activists are scheduled to take place between now and next year.

On 21 November, activists who scaled the roof of Elbit’s factory in Oldham, near Manchester, and entered the site damaging machinery, face charges of criminal damage and burglary.

In early October, too, a trial against a group of activists that has been dubbed the Elbit Eight was set to commence at Snaresbrook Crown Court in London. As The Electronic Intifada revealed last month, they face a welter of charges for which they could individually and collectively be jailed for many years.

Of the eight, three – Ammori, her fellow Palestine Action co-founder Richard Barnard, and their comrade Emily Arnott – face the most serious charge of all, that of conspiracy to blackmail.

The charge is based on how the activists wrote to the company that provided Elbit’s London office space, encouraging its executives to evict the weapons manufacturer, and promising to expand their campaign if this request was not met. The maximum penalty for blackmail under English law is 14 years in prison.

However, for reasons unclear, that trial has been postponed until at least November 2023.

Perhaps it is hoped that the lengthy period spent with futures uncertain will dampen their fervor. In the meantime, though, the eight accused activists remain defiant, and consider their eventual prosecution to be a golden opportunity to put Elbit in the dock.

They hope to ask company representatives unwelcome questions about its operations, and in the process commit confirmed evidence of the destructive ends to which its weapons are routinely put in Gaza and the West Bank to public record.

Palestine Action strongly suspects one of the key reasons previous cases have collapsed before reaching court is that Elbit representatives are wary of admitting to their active, ongoing and direct complicity in abuses perpetrated against Palestinian civilians in open court. In terms of negative publicity, the forthcoming trial could produce an embarrassment of riches – which, even if convicted, the group would consider a major success.

“The British government and Elbit know that we are disrupting their violence, their apartheid, their shameless breaches of international law,” said a Palestine Action campaigner who asked to be called Finn.

“They are scared their crimes will be exposed, and they’re right to be,” added Finn, one of the activists who walked free from court last month. “This is a call to anyone considering taking part in direct action. We are innocent and they are guilty, no matter what the courts say,”

Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions. Twitter: @KitKlarenberg.