Palestine protest in Leicester: “this is the biggest call to action we've ever seen”

Inside the pro-Palestine march that took place at the weekend.

A group of protestors holding placards.
Over the weekend, Leicester witnessed its biggest pro-Palestine protest to date, with demonstrations at UAV Tactical Systems in Braunstone Town following on Monday. Credit: Shakeer Sayani / Great Central Gazette

People in Leicester have been taking action on both the micro and macro levels to support Palestine. Whether attending protests, boycotting brands, spreading awareness online, or organising demonstrations, activism in the city continues to build momentum.

The most recent protest targeted Elbit Systems UK's drone factory, which has seen growing demonstrations calling for its closure. On 22 April, approximately 50 protesters gathered outside the facility located in Meridian Business Park. The protest was organised by Palestine Action, along with a group of other pro-Palestine organisations, and started at 7am. It lasted for over three hours before ending with a few arrests.

Sumo, a member of Palestine Action, said this was the highest turnout yet for an Elbit protest in Leicester. “The turnout has been amazing,” she remarked. “We hope to shut this place down forever, and I think we’re quite close to it. We’re getting closer and closer to it every day, but we need to keep coming out here, every week or daily if possible.”

Palestine Action calls for shutting down companies complicit in what they call Israeli “apartheid.” Sumo emphasised the need for more direct action, like “destroying” the drones and weapons being manufactured. “We need to get in there if we can, find the machinery that is being built to kill Palestinians and destroy it,” she stated. “I think it’s unacceptable and disgusting that they’re making weapons here.”

At the protest, the police presence appeared heavy-handed, as officers were observed physically pushing and moving demonstrators. Four arrests were made for offences including obstruction of the highway, criminal damage and threatening behaviour. However, Palestine Action claims the arrests lacked substantial basis and were unjustified.

An anonymous protester highlighted growing support from outside Leicester. “We’ve had people turn up from different cities today,” they noted. But they questioned where others, like Leicester's large Muslim community, have been. Just a few hours prior, thousands of people attended the Midlands March for Palestine in the city centre, yet few returned to Elbit.

A protestor is arrested in front of a police car while another protestor holds a sign that reads "Blood on their hands".
This is not the first time protestors have been arrested at the Elbit factory. Credit: Palestine Action

“Do we only leave our houses when it’s a comfort to us?” the protester asked. “Palestine is not a trend. We’re not here to wear keffiyehs and go back home. We need to be acting strategically, act smart and shut it down.”

The factory is operated by UAV Tactical Systems, a subsidiary of the Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit Systems UK and a joint venture with Thales, a French defence group. The factory is alleged to produce drones and other military technology exported to Israel for use against Palestinians, particularly in Gaza. Elbit has repeatedly denied holding export licences for arms sales covering such equipment.

Ethan Cross, president of the University of Leicester Palestine Society, was present at the Elbit protest and aims to shut down the factory like others. “We hope to send a message to these workers so they know they are complicit in the genocide and slaughter of over 15,000 children,” Cross stated.

Elbit Systems UK did not respond to requests for comment.

A protestor throws up a peace sign with her fingers while another holds a sign that says "Free Palestine".
Several groups attended the protest. Credit: Palestine Action

Midlands March for Palestine

The Midlands March for Palestine the day before drew thousands of participants. Starting in Victoria Park and concluding in Leicester's city centre, the march aimed to hold the UK government accountable for its stance on Palestine.

A large, diverse crowd had gathered in Leicester for the pro-Palestine protest. People of all ages and backgrounds were there. One protester remarked that “this is the biggest call to action Leicester has ever seen.” Many in the crowd waved Palestinian flags and held signs criticising UK politicians like Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Some protesters employed heart-rending displays to represent the current situation in Gaza, which one demonstrator holding up a plastic doll. She said Palestine has become “a graveyard of babies like these, how many more babies will be killed?” As others chanted slogans targeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's role in the conflict.

A woman holds a plastic doll of a child with fake blood stains on its forehead and clothing.
Some protestors traded in their placards for more heart-rending displays. Credit: Shakeer Sayani / Great Central Gazette

When speaking to another protester, she acknowledged the significance of the widespread community support but lamented the extensive efforts needed to get the government's to notice. The protester quoted said, “unfortunately, all we’re doing is impacting on the dialogue, the discourse, and the fact that the government can ignore this is wrong.” 

Organised by the Leicester-based Friends of Al-Aqsa (FOA), the march saw speeches from guests including Claudia Webbe, a former Labour MP who now sits as an independent. She declared the UK government “will not stand by in silence while our government colludes in genocide.” Webbe was referencing the UN court ruling that Israel take measures to prevent genocidal acts in Gaza.

FOA campaigns for “political change for Palestine” from their base on Melbourne Road. Zane, a volunteer for the organisation, emphasised the importance of their involvement: “To remain silent as human atrocities are taking place, I think is being complicit,” they stated. “If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem and everyone here, is trying to be a part of the solution.”

Photo of the pro-Palestine protest moving down London Road. Credit: Great Central Gazette
Pro-Palestine protestors marched down London Road on Sunday. Credit: Shakeer Sayani / Great Central Gazette

FOA is led by Ismael Patel, a Leicester activist who has faced criticism from some Israeli and Jewish groups for alleged links to Hamas. However, FOA maintains their advocacy focuses solely on Palestinian political rights.

Other organisations involved in Saturday's march included Active Muslims Leicester and the University of Leicester Palestine Society. Both strongly advocate boycotting Israeli products and companies operating within the country. Some major firms facing boycott calls include Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and McDonald's.

The protests in Leicester show no signs of slowing down as activists continue applying pressure through various forms of direct action and advocacy. While the police presence at demonstrations remains heavy, various organisers say it has not deterred their efforts and may even be increasing support for their cause.

Looking ahead, Palestine Action says it will keep returning to the Elbit factory weekly until it is shut down. The University of Leicester Palestine Society also vows to ramp up its campaign targeting the company. Other groups involved stress the importance of maintaining momentum through further demonstrations, educational outreach, and economic measures like boycotts.

  • This article was amended on 31 May 2024. An earlier version said that there were 15,000 protesters, but this precise figure could not be confirmed. The headline was also amended to reflect the difference between comment and news. An additional line was added: “Elbit Systems UK did not respond to requests for comment.”

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