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Shenstone: The English village caught in anti-Israel rooftop protests

Locals of the Staffordshire village are divided over the presence of UAV factory owned by an Israeli company accused of war crimes against the Palestinians
Palestine Action members have vowed to continue targeting the Israeli arms company Elbit until it shuts down and vacates the UK (Vladimir Morozov)
By Ross Slater in Shenston, UK

On the face of it, Shenstone, on the edge of Lichfield in the West Midlands, is a fantasy English village. It is the village other villages wish they were.  

There are four pubs, a war memorial surrounded by poppies, a library with coffee shop run by 80 volunteers, upholsterers, a railway station and charming, expensive houses. 

But on Tuesday 23 February, a stranger driving through this picture-postcard scene of English glory would have happened across a most extraordinary scene. 

For just a couple of hundred metres from the Victorian-era train station were scores of police officers from different units, all surrounding a factory building from which the Palestinian flag was flying. 

'I think most people see the protesters as a bloody nuisance but personally I think...they have a point'

- Shenstone resident

The sheer volume of police in attendance, together with ambulances on stand-by, suggested a guerrilla group had turned up, but the presence of some bored locals having a nosey to combat the boredom of Covid-19 lockdown suggested otherwise. 

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On top of the factory's flat roof were six activists from the group Palestine Action, protesting against the fact that the company, UAV Engines, is owned by Elbit Systems, one of Israel's largest arms manufacturers and alleged purveyor of war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories and beyond. 

"I had never been on a rooftop demonstration before, and I still feel nervous thinking about it now, but I was elated to be on the roof," one of the activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Middle East Eye.

"I felt emotional and proud because I have watched for 10 years what Elbit's drones do in Gaza and other places, bringing death to hundreds of people," she said. "These machines contravene all principles of human rights and are used as judge, jury and executioner. By stopping their production, it felt like I was finally able to do something practical in solidarity with Palestinians."

But what do the locals think? Are they happy to share their beautiful village with the peddlers of high-tech death more than 3,000km away, or would they rather the protesters won and the company was driven out? 

Divided locals

Even asked about it in such blunt terms, many were happy to fall back on the sort of neutrality that is harnessed so eagerly by media and politicians. 

"I don't think we should take sides," said a 56-year-old woman who described herself with a giggle as a "domestic executive". "The Arab-Israeli conflict is six of one, half a dozen of the other."

Another local, 83-year-old retired jeweller Dave Watts, reckoned that it was just the way of the world.  

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"I'm old enough to remember the [second world] war and a lot of our servicemen were killed by bullets made by the BSA [Birmingham Small Arms Company]," he said. "Where things are made has no bearing on where they are used. It's how the economy works."

He speculated that the cost of policing would run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. Should Elbit be made to contribute more than one security guard to this? "Certainly not," he said. 

But others were listening. 

Kaleigh, 31, walking past the factory with her baby alongside her mother, said: "A few months ago I was walking past and there was a lady with a tannoy saying they were using these drones on children, and that hit home when you've got a little one."

"I feel more sympathy for the protesters," added her mother, Natalie, a florist. "They've exposed the company."

This family were not the only locals who would like to see Elbit-owned UAV depart. 

"I think most people see the protesters as a bloody nuisance, but personally I think they have a right to protest and they have a point," said another local woman, who lived close by but did not want to be named.

Lowering her voice to a whisper, she added: "Personally I would like to see the factory go, and I think they might. It's an eyesore, for one thing."

For a company at the centre of such a storm, UAV keeps very quiet. Locals say it has made no effort to defend its reputation from allegations that link it to the 2014 Israeli offensive on the besieged Gaza Strip, in which 2,200 Palestinians were killed, including more than 500 children.  

UAV is famously reticent when it comes to speaking up in court against the protesters who cause it such losses; the factory was closed recently for a clean-up after a protest that saw factory windows smashed and the building daubed in blood-red paint.

Between 2014 and 2017, four trials were abandoned when witnesses for the company decided they'd rather not take the stand. 

UAV protest
On Tuesday 23 February, activists from Palestine Action climbed on to the roof of Elbit's UAV Engines factory in Staffordshire, smashed the windows and prevented the site from opening (Vladimir Morozov)

Six people have been charged following the incident, bringing to 14 the number of people charged in relation to the Shenstone factory since last September. The first trial is scheduled for 17 May.

Israel use denied

One of the factory's employees who appeared to be overseeing matters said he could not comment as "everything is handled by head office".

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But he could not resist pointing out that the firm had been there since 1992 and that nothing they made was exported to Israel.  

The parts, he claimed, were not allowed to leave the UK because they could not get export licences.  

Those targeting the firm, he said, were "pure antisemites" who would just as easily attack supermarkets for selling kosher food.  

"This is a factory full of local guys, engineering and trying to make a living and put food on their family's tables," he said.

UAV is backed by the pro-Israel MP Michael Fabricant, whose Lichfield constituency borders Shenstone. 

"Well, it's an Israeli company, Israel is one of the most advanced technological countries in the world, and they own factories in Israel supplying parts to their army and air force," he said.  

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"These products made in Shenstone go to the British Army and the Royal Air Force and other Nato countries. Don't forget Britain is a net buyer of military equipment from Israel," he added.

"The protesters say they don't want these very light, very high-tech engines, which run for a very long time on a small amount of fuel. They don't want these being used in Israeli drones attacking the Palestinians. 

"I would say that a lot of this stuff isn't being used against innocent Palestinians. It is being used against the likes of Hezbollah, which is funded by the Iranian government," he added, although numerous cases seem to contradict his claim.

It is true that Britain is placing big orders with Elbit. Last month, the Ministry of Defence awarded it a £102m ($141m) contract to supply its "sensor to shooter" system for joint terminal attack controllers and fire support teams. 

Last February, the company was awarded a $1.25m contract to demonstrate and carry out drone surveillance of British coastal waters for the UK's Maritime and Coastguard Agency, as part of Britain's response to those seeking asylum.

It is also true, according to figures from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), that the UK issued individual licences for $505m worth of military equipment and technology for export to Israel between 2014 and 2018. 

This may not trouble too many of Shenstone's well-to-do residents, but what might bother them is the scale of resources being spent by the local police force and justice system to defend a company that has so far been so reluctant to defend itself. 

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