BACKGROUND AND HISTORY
Palestine Action has carried out three years of direct actions against weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems and other companies complicit in Israeli war crimes. Over that period, Elbit has been forced to abandon their London office, and have closed down a major factory in Oldham. Activists claim the company has lost contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds as a result.
Throughout this process many people have been taken to court, but while early cases often led to acquittals, some people have more recently gone to prison, and increasingly activists have been held on remand, their houses raided, and some even questioned under terrorism laws.
In Real Media’s 2021 documentary marking the first year of Palestine Action’s campaign in the UK, we revealed that back in 2020, the then Foreign Minister Dominic Raab had a meeting with Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Farkash-Hacohen and Defence Minister Benny Gantz. The meeting took place just a few days after the London Elbit office had been targeted by activists for a fourth time, and Raab promised the senior Israeli officials that he was committed to stopping Palestine Action.
A recent Freedom of Information request has now revealed Israeli government meetings with the Attorney General’s office, and what may have been attempts to influence or interfere with the prosecution of Palestine Action cases. They mostly comprise correspondence between Doug Wilson, Head of the Attorney General’s Office, and unnamed officers at the Israeli Embassy.
The Attorney General’s office had at first offered some heavily redacted documents, but a review by the Data Commissioner forced further disclosures. Activist researchers believe there is yet more to be uncovered, and are challenging the government’s current position that revealing further information is “not in the public interest as it may jeopardise relations between UK and Israel”.
Among the disclosures are assurances from the Attorney General that the UK would be passing legislation in order to prohibit some protests – specifically the very controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act which was widely seen as cracking down on dissent.
There is also some discussion of the Colston case. The Colston Four were originally acquitted by a jury despite toppling the slave trader statue in Bristol. Although the government couldn’t in law appeal the acquittal, the Attorney General (apparently after discussions with the Israeli Embassy) challenged the admissability of human rights defences on a point of law. At the Court of Appeal, the Lord Chief Justice ruling, in September 2022, drew a distinction between public and private property, which has since restricted the legal defences available in a wide range of protest cases, especially affecting Palestine Action trials.
This new ruling now rules out human rights defences, meaning that that a jury will not be able to hear from expert witnesses about complicity in war crimes.
The campaign had been running for two whole years and had carried out dozens of actions reportedly causing millions of pounds worth of damage and lost business. Several magistrate trials had led to acquittals, and no-one had been tried in front of a jury.
Palestine Action supporter Sarah was acquitted in a Magistrate’s Court well before the AG’s ruling, when she was able to run a defence of proportionality. She described to the court examples of the weapons Elbit manufacture, how they are used in war crimes against Palestine, and why they should be banned not just in this country but elsewhere too.
She noticed that someone was taking notes and monitoring her trial on behalf of Elbit, and that they even followed her to the station. These note-takers have been identified at several other trials, and Palestine Action now believe that their defence statements and various acquittals have been carefully analysed, and may have even influenced the AG’s ruling, which now restricts this type of defence.
Following a series of previous postponements, five Palestine Action supporters finally faced trial at Southwark Crown Court just two months after the AG’s ruling. Defence barristers clashed with CPS lawyers in legal arguments which were heard before the jury was called, but under the new AG rules the Judge ruled out almost all the legal defences. Despite this, as reported by Real Media at the time, all five were acquitted.
At the court, it came to light that Elbit had hired a legal professional to sit in and take notes, as per other trials. This time they were also observed regularly entering a private room set aside at the court for CPS staff. The activists’ legal team confirmed that during the trial this person instructed the CPS that they were unhappy that Elbit was being referred to as a weapons company (even though this is public knowledge and was already an “agreed fact” between both sides’ legal teams). According to Palestine Action, the prosecutor then began challenging defendants’ remarks, as newly instructed.
In the UK, the Crown Prosecution Service claims to be completely independent and outside political interference. Huda Ammori, co-founder of Palestine Action says “The CPS should be completely independent from political influence or undue pressure, and if they are not, then it is an abuse of process, which means that the prosecutions against us are completely illegitimate.”
We now learn that the CPS chief prosecutor was personally invited by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to a conference aimed at European jurists. This was at the time that two Palestine Actionists were on remand in the UK.
Because Elbit are legally considered the ‘victim’, they are entitled to have some review and input, but for example how many domestic abuse survivors or rape victims have the sort of entitled access to senior CPS staff or the Attorney General if or when they review their own cases?
The Ministry of Justice in this country is responsible for the prisons (where two Palestine Actionists are currently held) and are responsible for the court system and the criminal justice system.
Worryingly, the documents mention a mysterious ‘joint declaration’ between the UK and Israel’s Ministries of Justice, which has not been made public, and there are references to aligning the UK and Israel on aspects of criminal and other types of law.
Recent judicial changes in Israel have snatched power away from lawyers, and controversially curtailed the Supreme Court’s ability to launch human rights and democratic challenges to government legislation. Here in the UK we have already seen government attacks in the media, shaming so-called “lefty” lawyers who uphold human rights. Perhaps this is a warning sign of the type of alignment that Israel is pursuing with the UK.
Another way in which recent rulings affect trials is in terms of ‘disclosure’. Previously, in order to counter a defence of proportionality or necessity, Elbit would have had to disclose all sorts of information about their business in order to effectively prove that what they are doing is lawful.
Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge assault on Gaza killed around 2,000 Palestinians – a quarter of whom were children. During that assault, protesters occupied Elbit’s Shenstone subsidiary, briefly stopping the manufacture of parts for drones, but just days before the trial the following year, Elbit refused to disclose documents and the prosecution collapsed.
A year before Palestine Action was founded, Real Media filmed a factory occupation in Kent. The factory was covered in graffiti, dozens of staff were sent home and all work stopped for the day. Police attended in numbers, but after discussions with senior managers, the activists were politely told they could leave whenever they liked and would not be arrested. We interviewed Palestine Action co-founder Richard Barnard sitting in front of the graffitied building, surrounded by powerless police officers, asking “What on earth is going on here. How can people come in here, shut down a factory that’s supposedly law-abiding, and no action be taken?”
A synchronised action in Oldham also closed down the Elbit factory there for two whole days, but all charges against the occupiers were later dropped.
We already know that the apartheid Israeli state has seriously influenced UK politics (see Al Jazeera’s powerful documentary The Lobby). The exposure of these documents now begin to show their influence over our justice system.
SPECIAL MISSION IMMUNITY
The documents also reveal an attempt to strengthen and simplify something called Special Mission Immunity. Diplomatic immunity is given to diplomats who come to countries so that they can be free from criminal prosecutions while they’re here, but this special mission immunity seems to be not restricted to diplomats, but open to other Israelis who might be coming over here. And there is specific reference to crimes against humanity. There appears to be a reassurance to Israel that even if they do fit into the criteria of committing war crimes, people can come over if they follow a simple procedure, even to the point that they just need to send an email two weeks before they come.
Tzipi Livni has just been elected as director of Elbit Systems. She is accused of war crimes for her involvement in the Palestinian massacres of 2008 and 2014. She’s a former Mossad operative, former deputy prime minister, and former minister of justice.
When Keir Starmer was Director of Public Prosecutions in 2011 he blocked an attempt to prosecute Ms Livni.
Attorney General Victoria Prentis has recently been accused of failing to properly disclose her own or close family’s shareholdings in several FTSE100 companies.
The British state is complicit in the colonisation of Palestine, starting with the Balfour Declaration more than 100 years ago, to having British soldiers in Palestine, to having Israeli weapons manufacturers hiding in plain sight across the UK now.
Supporters of Palestine Action, taking action to halt the production of Israeli weapons in this country, are taking that action to help prevent war crimes Israel is committing against the Palestinians. Now we see that their prosecutions are being influenced by the Israeli state, their ability to justify their actions in front of British juries is being restricted, and at the same time our government, while acknowledging that Israel may be committing war crimes, are giving them special mission immunity so long as they let them know two weeks before they come in an email.
From the beginning, Palestine Action remained accountable for their actions and planned to reveal to UK juries that the real criminals were Elbit Systems. They did this over and over. Now the goalposts have moved, apparently under pressure from the Israeli state. The likely effect is not an end to actions against Elbit, but that fewer of them will be accountable. We’ve already seen the sewage pipes of the Shenstone factory mysteriously blocked, along with several night-time operations to damage arms company assets. Now the group have announced a new offshoot – Palestine Action Underground – who will carry out a growing number of unaccountable actions against Elbit and other companies that supply or provide services for them, not just in the UK but across Europe.
The FOI documents are published here
(The article was amended on Aug 29 to further clarify the Colston Four ruling)