As a lorry earmarked for London’s weapons fair approaches, a group of people suddenly hold hands and start Palestinian Dabke dancing in the road. A police officer tries to get people to move but inadvertently finds himself in the middle of a circle of dancing activists.
Games of giant football, dancing to Palestinian music and obstacles in the road ensure that the Metropolitan police play games of tag with the 100-strong crowd on the first day of resistance against Britain’s DSEI (Defence and Security Equipment International) weapons fair.
Local activists, grassroots and faith groups are occupying the space next to ExCel London, a large venue in East London, to frustrate the set-up of the fair that will run from September 12-15.
Monday, September 4th, was the first day of a week of actions that will continue until Sunday, September 10th. Kicking off the week was Stop Arming Israel day, which focused on Israel’s presence at the fair and was organised by the national Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and London Palestine Action, a collective of British and Palestinian activists.
The inaugural DSEI fair opened its doors on the day of America’s Twin Towers attack in 2001. Unperturbed, the ExCel centre has played host to the controversial event ever since. When the US-led War on Terror gathered pace, the global arms trade flourished. As oppressive regimes across the Arab world were quashing revolutions and people, they were invited to London’s fair.
Past fairs have included war ships, drones, border surveillance technology and, as recently as 2011, even banned cluster bombs.
But each biannual event has been protested by a growing coalition called Stop the Arms Fair.
Stopping or slowing down deliveries of weapons and military equipment before the event starts has been the tactic of choice for the coalition since 2013.
‘One arrest on Monday [out of eight] was of a protester who climbed underneath an armoured vehicle underneath an open-bed truck and attached herself to that’, said Kat Hobbs from CAAT.
‘The vehicle was manufactured by an Israeli arms company and was probably destined for display as part of the country’s national pavilion’.
Dabke not destruction
Dabke was banned during Palestine’s first intifada in an effort to dismantle the country’s culture but it’s had the opposite effect. ‘It’s a form of protest for us and, for me as a Palestinian, it is cultural resistance’, said Shahd Abusalama from Gaza.
‘It’s a form of dance that has almost been defaced by Israel and we try to keep it alive and present at every possible occasion. It brings people together, reminds people of the rich traditions that Palestine has and that Palestinians have their own ways of resistance’, added Shahd, whose dancing helped hold the road.
Apart from Dabke workshops, Monday’s line-up included workshops on the cultural boycott of Israel and on Israel’s arms trade with the rest of the world.
Banner making, a theatre performance and a choir added to the creative actions of the day. An evening gig included Palestinian pop group Katiba 5 and a spoof band called Some F*#king People, formed after Radiohead performed in Tel Aviv despite widespread calls for them to heed the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions call.
Business as usual
The Israeli military has often boasted about using Palestine as a testing ground – marketing technologies and equipment tested in Gaza and the West Bank as ‘battle tested’.
‘They use Palestine as a laboratory to develop technologies of violence and social control which they can then export to countries and governments across the world’, explained Kat, while sitting in the protest camp’s information tent.
‘The UK government co-organises the fair so they’ve had a big role in helping Israel set up its pavilion, a platform where Israeli companies can advertise their weapons under the national banner’.
But Israel and Britain enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship when it comes to the arms trade.
Despite the Conservative government’s acknowledgement that exports have been used for attacks on Palestinians, it has licensed £140 million worth of weapons to Israel since their Protective Edge bombardment of Gaza in 2014. These deals are set to become more lucrative as the UK pulls out of the European Union.
‘No matter what Israel does, it’s just business as usual for the British government’, said Kat.
Stop the Arms Fair coalition has two demands of the UK government. Its first demand is to stop arming Israel, the second is to stop the two-way trade between Israel and Britain.
A short walk from the DSEI protest camp is Newham’s Garden Community Cafe. A community hub, it offers free computer use for job seekers, invites people to buy suspended drinks and puts on events after hours. Proudly placed on one wall are photos of previous Stop the Arms Fairs and flyers promoting this week’s actions are pinned to a board.
The café has been organising against the fair since it started in 2001, along with local churches and East London Against Arms Fairs (ELAAF), a local group that holds monthly musical protests against the arms fair outside ExCel.
Many residents in the area near the ExCel centre, called Custom House, and in the diverse borough of Newham are against the arms fair, said Kat. ‘People are very separated from the ExCel centre’.
‘It’s this weird corporate land that’s quite far away from the big estates where people are living. And the arms fair doesn’t really advertise itself so often people are unaware of what’s happening on their doorsteps even when their lives have been affected by conflict’.
Local anti-gentrification housing group Peach ran a workshop on Monday, called Social Cleansing and Colonialism: Custom House to Palestine.
We have to object
Those participating in Stop the Arms Fair spoke of the varied issues they were there to highlight: policing in the UK, anti-racism, solidarity with Palestinians and democracy were just a few.
‘The Jewish tradition that I come from is to always fight against oppression, particularly state oppression, which is exactly what the state of Israel represents to the Palestinians’, said Sam Weinstein, a member of IJAN (International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network). ‘The Israeli state are trying to ruin what it means to be Jewish by assuming that they represent me.
Sam believes that protesting the arms fair is an effective and necessary tactic. ‘Israel must not be allowed to go anywhere without our objecting’, he said.
‘You feel sometimes that it’s only the government level that supports Israel because they’re all in the war machine together’, chipped in Londoner Michael Kalmanovitz, also a member of IJAN.
‘They’re all making money out of it and they don’t care who they kill. But we care. And most grassroots people around the world do’.
In the UK at least, condemnation of Britain’s involvement in the arms trade is growing, partly thanks to opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s call to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia and his – and others – more nuanced take on the country’s recent terror attacks and foreign policy.
In July, the Labour mayor for London, Sadiq Khan, spoke of his opposition to the DSEI fair but said that he didn’t have the powers to stop it.
Meanwhile, the government’s Department for International Trade has not only continued its support of the fair but also its support of Israel being at the fair – despite the UK identifying Israel as being a country at war and a country with wide-ranging human rights concerns.
‘It’s completely unethical and part of Israel’s international immunity that Britain is complicit in’, said Shahd.
‘We are here to stop the arms trade with Israel and to awaken the conscience of the British government which is failing the people in Palestine and those affected by war worldwide’.