Inside a secret meeting of the notorious Palestine Action Group

The group is planning direct action across the UK


“If there are any Elbit spies just leave … Not that it really matters as we’re going to get round you anyway,” keffiyeh-wearing Palestine Action co-founder Richard Barnard told the crowd. 

Half an hour earlier, notorious far-left rapper Lowkey had taken the floor, urging the activists to “build on” a previous attack on an Oldham property used by Israeli defence firm Elbit Systems. 

Soon afterwards, the camera recording the event was turned off. 

We had gone undercover into a meeting of Britain’s most extreme anti-Israel collective — and this was the moment they set out their secret plans for a nationwide wave of mayhem and destruction.

The primary targets? More properties owned by Elbit, nationwide.     

Forms were handed out for those willing to be arrested. We were told to download secure messaging app Signal to be contacted, and that the piece of paper with our details on it would soon be destroyed.

Sporting an Arabic tattoo across his neck, Mr Barnard explained what was coming. 

A sustained, intense series of “direct actions” against Elbit offices was the objective. And as for tactics, think extreme. 

Activists could lock themselves under vans and break into factories to cause “high-level damage” to machinery, Mr Barnard said. The attacks and trespassing could involve “being in lock-ons, for example locking yourself to a door; lying under caravans; people climbing on the roofs”, he added.

While no dates or locations were disclosed, there was no doubting his seriousness. Within days of the meeting, we received a call and then a message asking if we would like to attend an “arrest workshop” that night to prepare us to join a group “taking action” the following week.

But, Mr Barnard told the assembled crowd of teens, pensioners and 20-somethings, he hadn’t always cared about the cause. 

He said: “To be honest with you, I had no idea where Palestine was when I first got involved in anti-arms stuff.” 

Then came his lightbulb moment. 

“I lived next to an Elbit factory and, to be honest, I didn’t want to live next to a factory that made arms and then I found these things out the other way round.”

Palestine Action aims to foster that same “enlightenment” across Britain and turn communities against all those complicit in “Israeli apartheid”, he said. 

“Whenever there’s an underdog or a people oppressed, people will stand up to that,” Mr Barnard added.

One member of the attentive crowd, an older woman, spoke up. She gave the audience her tips for coping with arrest: bring a good book to read in the cells and wear an old pair of trainers that you don’t mind the police confiscating. A person standing at the front backed this up by saying that the worst part about being arrested at a previous action had been the confiscation of their vegan leather Doc Martens.  

Those attending the meeting, in a grand Georgian building in central Manchester — the home of the city’s Quakers — showed few signs of nerves, despite the fact that a potentially criminal campaign was being planned. 

A woman wearing a black sweater stood up to speak. This was Huda Ammori, another co-founder. 

“Thank you everyone for coming. We’re really excited to have this on,” she began, softly.

“As people may or may not know, recently an Israeli arms factory in Oldham, that’s not so far away from here, was forced to close down.”

Applause and cheers erupted around the room. 

During an interlude, about an hour into the evening, two girls sitting in the audience debated the merits of dropping out of university to devote themselves to activism full-time. One thought her course was a waste of time and her calling in life was to protest. The other remained cautious and tried to convince her friend to hang on at university.

A young man with a red mohawk sitting nearby was more reasoned, saying that he felt enthused about doing something to help Palestine but he wasn’t sure about getting arrested. 

One overriding theme of the right was that the sorts of protests carried out by most people are simply not enough. Marching in rallies, signing petitions or writing to your MP was never going to drive Elbit from the UK, the speakers claimed. 

“No politician, not even Jeremy Corbyn, has ever shut down an arms factory,” said Mr Barnard, “but the people of Oldham have.”

Ms Ammori said: “We know we can win and now is just the time to get rid of the rest of Elbit’s factories.”

Our overriding impression, however, was of a sense of impunity. We were told that we did not need to worry about being charged, sentenced and imprisoned for breaking into Israeli-owned factories, because it had not happened to anybody before.

Neither juries nor magistrates would convict us, added Mr Barnard, because they “recognised that the cause was just”. 

Elbit, he said, had no desire to go to trial because their own “immorality” would be exposed.

It was also clear that targeting Elbit was merely the beginning of a longer campaign against Israeli firms.

Mr Barnard said: “There are plenty of companies that are across this country, capitalistic companies that are complicit with the Israeli apartheid regime. But let’s go after the worst of the worst. 

“We’ve heard that brilliantly from these two [Ms Ammori and rapper Lowkey] about how Elbit systems are mixed up in everything. Let’s go after the worst of the worst.”

Once communities are incited to oppose an arms manufacturer, the struggle could go on to address others “complicit in Israeli apartheid”, he added. “Lots of people in Leicester did know about Palestine,” Mr Barnard said. 

“But they didn’t know there was a factory there and then when four people climbed on the roof … a thousand people came out on the streets. 

“Because what they did was they blocked the police from doing anything . . . they threw water on the roof, some of them got arrested — and released obviously straight away — all of these elements of direct action.”

Palestine Action has tasted success without consequences in Oldham. Its activists are not going to stop any time soon.

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