-Acquitted for Decommissioning Israeli Weapon Components During the Bombing of Gaza
Last Wednesday, July 7th, Elijah Smith was released from Lewes Prison. He had been held since the Israeli bombing of Gaza in January '09. Along with his co-defendants he had been acquitted unanimously of all charges by the jury. This concluded 18 months the EDO 9 spent before the courts for their nonviolent resistance to the bombing of Gaza.
I remember first hearing the good news of the anti-war activists decomissioning the EDO arms factory in Brighton, England. It was the 3rd. week of the relentless Israeli blitzkrieg of Gaza in January 17th. '09. More than 2,300 air-strikes were to devastate Gaza during this three week attack, as civilians had no where to flee or take shelter. The Israelis bombed 3,354 houses, 280 schools, Gaza's only flour mill, the chicken farm that provided 10% of the eggs in the beseiged enclave, the sewage plant, wells that provided drinking water. The massacre promised to continue without serious opposition until the U.S. Presdiential inaugaration later that month. The Israeli government unleashed Operation Cast Lead shortly afer Christmas Day killing over 1400 Palestinians
It was a bleak and wet winter's Saturday morning in Dublin. I had been couch surfing for 6 months and was presently ensconsed in a friend's high rise, vault like apartment. My friend was making his living off online poker and had just turned in as I began to stir. I was lying in bed trying to convince myself of the dubious signifcance of going on yet another Paletinaian solidarity march that had become a regular Saturday morning fixture since the start of the Israeli military campaign. In over 30 years of activism I've come to dread the empty liturgies, rallies and marches of "the left", the gulf between predictable protest and solidarity with resistance. How much these events are a sincere response to the sufferings of others and how much they are about well seasoned grouplets posturing, ambulance chasing and self promoting remains an open question?
I stumbled out of bed, grabbed a coffee, rearranged the ashtrays in front of the computer and flicked on the internet. Over on UK indymedia I discovered that while I had slept, good folks had moved from protest to nonviolent resistance and entered the EDO arms factory in Brighton.
Videos of pre-action statements had ben posted on on indymedia. These folks sounded like the real thing; The EDO factory, provider of bomb release mechanisms to Israeli F16's being used extensively over Gaza, looked well and truly trashed. Machinery was disabled and computers, filing cabinets and office furnishings had been thrown out the windows.
One of the reasons that the six had so much time in the factory was that ironically Sussex police on arrival at the scene saw a bomb in the car-park and cordoned off the area waiting for specialists to arrive. The ‘bomb’ was in fact a dummy, a prop for EDO to display at trade fairs, precision guided out of an upstairs window by the decommissioners.
Bristol based activists - Elijah Smith, Tom Woodhead, Robert Nicholls, Robert Alford, Ornella Saibene and Harvey Tadman - who had entered EDO were now in custody. Three Brighton activists - Rosa Bellamy, Simon Levin and Chris Ormond - were lifted outside the factory were also banged up.
I recall Phil Berrigan telling me once that "Brothers and sisters in jail for peace and justice sake speak to our conscience, which is how God speaks to us!" Such speech demands a response of solidarity. I truly believe if 1% of the people who marched against the US/UK war on Iraq in '03 had gone into nonviolent resistance in the spirit of King, Berrigan and the EDO 9 and the other 99% had remained in proactive solidarity - the governments and corporations would have had a tough time waging their wars. Likewise with the Israel's ongoing war on Palestine. It shouldn't be a case of these, or any, resisters feeling isolated in jail and other dissidents remaining at home feeling disengaged. There has to be a powerful mutual dynamic between resisters and the broader movement. We would be a better movement for it. So I drew up a placard of the EDO 9 and headed off into the wind and the rain to share the good news of this resistance with the Dublin protest rally.
In the lead up to the '03 invasion of Iraq, some Brighton folks made the decision that marching around in circles against the oncoming war in downtown London was a waste of time and energy. They decided to focus on where the rubber hits the road in terms of the war machine in their community. So by the time of the '09 Gaza massacre they had waged a 7 year campaign against the EDO arms factory based in Brighton. The Schnews DVD documentary "On The Verge" covers this local; grassroots campaign very well.
Meanwhile in Bristol, in the lead up to the '09 bombing of Gaza activsts had focused on their own locally based raytheon and British Aerospace arms factories. As the relentless bombing continued through the first half of January '09 a group of them began to coalesce to directly intervene. They chose EDO in Brighton as it was producing components essential to the Israeli F16's being employed extensively by the Israeli military. These Bristol activists met up quite rapidly, shared a resolve and clambered into a slow moving van and set off for Brighton. They arrived in the early hours of Friday morning knocked on the door of some Brighton anti-EDO activists. Within 24 hours they were all in custody following the disarmament of EDO.
One of their number - Elijah Smith - has been denied bail since the action. In March '09 I travelled to Bristol to meet the defendants during a demonstration outside the Bristol jail where Elijah was then being held. The defendants had been released under strict bail conditions banning any communication between them. They took great care not to make any eye contact with each other outside the prison. These conditions remained in force in the entire 18 month lead up to their trial. It was great to idividually meet these folks and as I returned to Australia for a year I kept them in thought & prayer, spread the word of their action, circulated the "On the Verge" DVD and wrote to the imprisoned Elijah Smith sporadically. Many people underestimate the significance of small acts of solidarity open to them to those in jeaopardy. As Judy Small sang, "Because we think we can do little, we do nothing at all!".
In contrast to that dreary Dublin day I first heard of the EDO 9, it was a bright sun shiny day when I arrived in Brighton in June 2010 for the trial. Dispatched by my London Catholic Worker community, I was delivered by National; Express to the Brighton pier. As I walked along the shoreline past all the holiday time amusements it was hard to connect this scene to the seaside town of Gaza where bombs had been delivered by components constructed in Brighton. I walked past where the mods & rockers had it out in the '60's portrayed in the movie "Quadraphenia", past the Grand Hotel rebuilt after the IRA assasination attempt on Maggie Thatcher in the '80's as payback for Bobby Sands and the deaths of the hunger strikers. I swung right up the hill to the Hove court. On the steps of the courts I met the support which consisted mostly of friends of the defendants. There was little evidence of the mainstream anti-war organisations mobilising around this trial. It continues to mystify me how such organisations abandon nonviolent anti-war resisters before the courts and in jail?
The Prosecution case had closed the previous week and one of the Brighton defendants, Rosa Bellamy, had been released with no case to answer. In effect, the trial had been turned around in the cross examination of the prosecution's star witness EDO managing director Paul Hills who found himself spending four days in the dock. He had come to court intending to pass EDO off as a company primarily manufacturing in-flight entertainment equipment. He was presented with a dossier of evidence painstakingly built up over the years by campaigners, which pointed firmly at the company’s complicity in war crimes.
Under cross examination, Hills revealed that the company have owned the rights to the main bomb rack used on Israeli F-16s - the VER-2 - since 1998. He admitted removing website evidence of his company’s dealings with Israel as early as 2004, the date of the first protests. He admitted having interfered with the crime scene, retrieving debris and papers, before police photographers arrived. He claimed to have police permission but no police statement backed him up. There has been speculation that £189,000 is actually an underestimate of the damage caused and that more controversial evidence may have been spirited away. After being warned at one stage by the judge that he was at risk of perjuring himself if he contradicted evidence he’d produced in earlier court cases, crucially he ended by admitting that anyone looking at the evidence presented to him in court would form the reasonable belief that his company was involved in arms sales to Israel. It was this that the defendants needed to convince the jury of - that there was an obvious link between this factory and the bombardment of Gaza.
A witness, Sharyn Lock, provided the background necessary for the jury to understand the full scope of the horror then unfolding in Gaza. Now a trainee midwife, in 2009 she was a human-rights volunteer in Al-Quds hospital, Gaza City. She was in the Gaza strip for the whole of Operation Cast Lead, and able to show footage of a missile strike on the hospital, just metres from the maternity ward. The jury also saw news reports of the white phosphorus attacks on the UNWRA compound, which incinerated much-needed food and medicine. Sharyn closed her evidence by saying she had no doubt that those who armed the Israeli Air Force ‘had the blood of children on their hands’.
By the time I had arrived two of the Bristol defendants, community worker Ornella Saibene and Buddhist homeless worker Bob Nicholls had also given evidence. I heard a Buddhist monk give character reference for Bob in regards to his community and aid work in Bristol and India. We then heard Tom's evidence in relation to the development of his conscience through his Catholic upbringing, attending peace & justice protests with his parents and how it had spurred him to act in the face of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) assault on Gaza.
Brighton defendant Chris Ormond took the stand. He shared his personal experience in Palestine. The jury heard of his mistreatment at tha hands of the IDF and his observations of others who had been wounded and killed for speaking out. He told of his involvement in the 7 year campagn in Brighton against EDO. We heard of his surprise when the Bristol crew landed on his doorstep, his distress at the ongoing massacre in Gaza and his support for the action they planned to take at EDO. He spoke of the stress and fears experienced by all the defendants over the preceeding 18 months as they faced the courts amd the threat of prison. He spoke of how they felt compelled to act in the face of these fears, in the knowledge what they were doing was legal and in solidarity with those suffering in Gaza.
After I returned to London, Caroline Lucas, the Green Party Member of Parliament for Brighton, testified to how all democratic processes had been exhauisted in January '09 in relation to staying the deadly hand of the Israeli military over the people of Gaza. Th MP testified that nonviolent direct action was the only response left open by Jaunuary 17th. '09.
I arrived back in Brighton for the last week of the trial. It's amazing how quickly you bond with people at such court cases - the defendants and support. A commnunity brought together by shared jeopardy and solidarity. The defense had won the legal arguments around war crimes, lawful excuse and necessity defences. The eight closing arguments were eloquently delivered by the defense Queens Counsellors and barristers.
On the Wednesday afternoon the jury returned unanimous acquittals on five of the defendants. The imprisoned Elijah Smith and Chris Ormond were left hanging until court resumed Friday morning when the Judge directed the jury to find the remaining defendants not guilty.
Celebrations continue at time of writing. Yesterday Elijah Smith was freed from Lewes Prison after 18 months in custody. Before the trial, Israeli commandos murdered 9 international peace activists nonviolently bringing supplies to break the siege of Gaza. The "acts of mercy" - feeding the hungry, bringing building supplies to the homeless and medical supplies to the sick has now been made a capitol offence by the Israeli state. Israel continues to maintain the only gulag in the Western Hemisphere, the open air prison that is the Gaza Strip containing 1.5 million inmates. Companies like EDO continue to make a killing. The victims demand our resistance. Our resisters deserve our solidarity.