On May 1st 2023, an activist group, Palestine Action (PA), staged a siege against a military drones factory in Leicester owned by Elbit Systems Ltd – an Israeli company that supplies 55% of Israel’s arms and whose drones are said to make up 80% of Israel’s drone fleet.
It is inside of this factory, known as UAV Tactical Systems (UAV TacS), behind blacked out windows and with the protection of anti-climb fences, barbed wire and security dogs, that Elbit design, test, and manufacture Unmanned Aerial Vehicles such as the Watchkeeper drone. The Watchkeeper, used both for surveillance and for killing, is routinely deployed by the settler-colonial regime of Israel against innocent Palestinian civilians. It has also been deployed by the British Army during their increasingly infamous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, UAV Tactical Systems in Leicester has been subject to numerous protests from local residents and activists, most notably from PA, whose sustained efforts have already forced 2 out of 10 Elbit factories to shut down indefinitely.
On their website, PA lay out the plan for the ongoing siege:
“In May 2021, Palestine Actionists scaled the roof of Leicester’s Israeli arms factory, UAV Tactical Systems. The fire service refused to stop the action. The people of Leicester came out in thousands.
Together, for six days, we #ShutElbitDown
In a new front to the campaign, we’re heading back to finish what we started.
In our masses, our siege will include staying put day and night, for weeks on end.
From may 1st, we’re not leaving until Elbit does”
As many cases in history highlight, effective opposition lays not (only) in performing activism outside the arms factories but in organising the workers inside those factories, too. On my way back from the Annual IWW Conference in Sheffield, I therefore decided to show up to the ongoing siege. Since my decision was spontaneous, I could not plan beforehand and was mostly unprepared for the occasion. However, usually residing in Scotland, this was my only chance to get involved ”boots on the ground” and establish if any union support could be or is already being provided there.
EDIT: By ”union support” I meant organising industrial action inside of the factory, in addition to the seige/protest already taking place outside
Unfortunately, not long after arriving at the site I discovered that the main organisers of and participants in staging the siege had been arrested or remained otherwise absent (to my knowledge). In their place was a small group of local Palestine supporters, all of which would usually go home at night and come back during the day. All, with the exception of one man who held a 24-hour vigil there ever since the siege began, and whom I joined from the 28th of May to the 1st of June.
Post-police violence reflections
As the protesters recounted to me, on the first day of the siege, over two hundred people besieged the factory. There was a comradely atmosphere throughout and people enjoyed learning Palestinian songs together and sharing food, some even handing it to the numerous police present in order to keep the peace. People from all walks of life united there to be the voice of the dispossessed.
The police decided to ”solve” this ”problem” through violent repression in the form of mass arrests. Indeed, on the second day of the siege, they arrested 33 people. And it didn’t end at that; they also abused their powers to confiscate all the tents, equipment, and sleeping bags. Has this been done by a regular member of the public, and it would be nothing short of theft.
After more than 50 arrests (including the “peace-makers” who offered food to the police), and much more police violence that followed, thirty police cars eventually dwindled to just one and from that point onwards the protest took on the character of a more symbolic demonstration. During my stay, it consisted of around 1-15 regular supporters who didn’t have any connection to PA, held a range of political views, did not belong to any political group or network, and didn’t keep to a rota.
To make matters worse, since no groundwork has been done at the factory prior to Palestine Action’s activism, there was no communication between the employees and the protesters. As a result, the specific labour completed inside or how much UAV TacS staff knew about Elbit’s involvement in colonialism remained unknown. There was also very little public knowledge about the factory’s operations in the area. We tried to hand leaflets to the passersby but due to Section 14 of the Public Order Act, we were only allowed to interact with them when they approached us themselves, and those interactions were few and far in between.
The list of (sometimes violent) intimidation tactics of the police is long and perhaps deserves a post of its own, but it is partly those tactics that prevented me from facilitating any communication with UAV TacS staff. Section 14 conveniently allowed the police to create a de facto exclusion zone around the factory (for protesters only) by binding us to a tiny, designated strip of pavement on the other side of the road. In fact, the majority of the arrests at the site had been done through the Section 14 order – that is for walking, usually unknowingly, out of the designated strip, which later came to be dubbed the “Leicester Strip” and which was marked by a plastic roadside barrier placed there by Leicester city council. At the height of the siege, a lot of people had apparently been arrested for just standing on the wrong side of it.
Here I am reminded of one particular time when a fellow protester warned me for trying to attach an informational leaflet to the top of the barrier. This leaflet stuck out dangerously into the “exclusion zone” by exactly 2 inches and thus, put me at risk of getting arrested. I believe that this was sadly not an exaggeration as the police had been watching us incessantly from their car. On one occasion even followed me into the woods to firmly instruct me to get back into the protest area.
Meanwhile, since my first day at the site I had been trying to organise some union support from local Wobblies, but to no avail. This was in part due to issues with IWW’s communication channels and it wasn’t until the third day of my stay that I eventually managed to get a FW to post something to the InterWob on my behalf.
Organising the delivery drivers?
Upon hearing that two days before my arrival Palestine Actionists physically blockaded the entrance to the factory with a broken car, I started thinking about mobilising the delivery drivers instead. I even managed to get my fellow protesters on board with this idea. Unfortunately however, most of the lorries arrived unmarked and with Section 14 still in place, we not able to talk to anyone near the factory. As a result, we were unable to identify Elbit’s suppliers.
The seige continues
Finally, on the 31st day of the siege at midnight, the police informed us that the Section 14 order had been lifted. Unfortunately, I had to leave the following day but the siege continues, now without Section 14 restrictions.
We call on all Wobblies who can support the seige through their skills or experience to show their solidarity at the site, demand the immediate release of Palestine Action political prisoners, and help to organise industrial action inside Elbit factories. If you want more information, the writer of this article can be contacted through the Edinburgh Branch.
Oppose Militarism, oppose Colonialism! Free, free Palestine!