Palestine Action is, as its name implies, involved in direct action against some of the arms trade’s most deadly production lines, notably Israel’s Elbit Systems. Since it burst onto the scene, quite a few members have been arrested at some of Elbit’s ten known factories and offices in Britain.
Elbit Systems is Israel’s largest arms company; it makes deadly “unmanned aerial vehicles”, known as drones. Palestine Action’s trademark calling card is deep red paint; it has used gallons since last year, symbolising the blood of innocents spilled in drone strikes.
Recently, the group has expanded its brief from targeting weapons factories to spraying the tented entrance of Britain’s biggest arms fair — DSEI at London’s ExCel Centre — to remind those seeking to buy weapons of the bloodshed caused by the products marketed within. Key exhibitors such as Elbit Systems, Raytheon, BAE Systems, and Lockheed Martin use arms fairs to market their deadly technology and products to governments from around the world. Perhaps they should be the focus of police interest rather than members of Palestine Action.Like many others, I am sick and tired of half-hearted apologies from the armed forces which use (or misuse) their weaponry. There’s nothing “smart” about a precision-guided missile which kills innocent civilians as — and I hate this term — collateral damage. There is no such thing as a clinical kill, a point agreed by several protest groups which have criticised the arms fair for its role in enabling the destructive US-UK war in Afghanistan over the past twenty years.
According to US policy, attacks by drones are not to go ahead if there is a probability that innocent civilians will be killed or injured. As we found out a few days ago, the US doesn’t really have a clue who it’s blowing up. Call me naïve, but it seems that the only certain thing when a drone takes to the air is, that innocent civilians will die, whether they’re Afghani, Iraqi, Pakistani, Yemeni, Syrian, or Palestinian.
Drone attacks were much favoured by Barack Obama who joked about their efficiency. One news story illustrated how much he ordered their use by pointing out that it would take the former US president more than three years to get through them all if he apologised to one innocent person a day. Human rights groups have demanded transparency from all US presidents since the Bush administration launched its drone wars, but there remains very little clarity on the number of civilians killed.
I’ve suspected this for many years. After the most recent US apology for killing civilians, I was had a sense of déjà vu. In April 2003, I travelled solo to Paktika in Afghanistan after hearing rumours of an atrocity against innocent civilians in a district called Bermal. All eyes were focused on Iraq so even though I got the story, it was difficult to find someone to publish it. There’s only so much injustice against the people of Asia and the Middle East that the media is prepared to broadcast or publish.
While I was investigating the atrocity in southern Afghanistan, a senior US army officer was also in the district with hush money to keep Afghan villagers quiet. He did not want people talking to me in case I found out that America had killed eleven children in another deadly blunder.
The Pentagon had claimed that it destroyed a Taliban stronghold when, in fact, US forces had destroyed a house. The grieving mother — Sawara was her name —lost all of her nine children in the attack. She was like an empty shell when I finally spoke to her.
She and her husband Mawes Khan had put their children to bed in the family home they shared with his brother Sardar, and his wife and their seven children. By morning, the corpses of eleven brothers, sisters, and cousins lay in a neat row in the courtyard. The Americans realised the full extent of their mistake and gave the family the equivalent of £6,350 and an apology.
That happened two years into the war when the number of dead Afghan civilians was not deemed important enough to register. How much compensation will the Americans pay to Zemari Ahmadi after wiping out ten members of his family, including eight children? The admission of guilt and an apology were only forthcoming because the world’s media was in Kabul on the day of the attack and had access to the scene of devastation as well as eyewitnesses and survivors to interview.
The media in Washington was briefed about how an unnamed ISIS-Khorasan fighter had been in a vehicle with an associate at the time of the strike, which was carried out by an MQ-9 Reaper drone. Captain Bill Urban, spokesman for US Central Command, assured journalists that the military had used specially chosen precision munitions in order to minimise civilian casualties. In essence, the compliant media was being fed propaganda packed with deceptive euphemisms.
The drone attack on the eve of the departure of the last US troops had come three days after Isis-Khorisan terrorists killed dozens of Afghan civilians, nearly 30 Taliban soldiers, and thirteen members of the US military in a suicide bombing at the gates of Kabul Airport. Civilians always suffer when the US rushes in to wreak revenge.
This week we heard US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin apologise for a “horrible mistake” after he admitted: “We now know that there was no connection between Mr Ahmadi and Isis-Khorasan, that his activities on that day were completely harmless and not at all related to the imminent threat we believed we faced, and that Mr Ahmadi was just as innocent a victim as were the others tragically killed.”
Compare this with the narrative pushed out on 29 August when the US military claimed triumphantly to have taken out ISIS terrorists and that there had been “significant secondary explosions from the vehicle”, suggesting that explosives were on board. Journalists were told that there were “no indications” of civilian casualties. As I said, America would have got away with the lies had there not been so many foreign journalists on the ground.
It emerged that Zemari Ahmadi is an engineer for aid group Nutrition and Education International. He was observed placing large water bottles or jugs into the back of his white car. US intelligence (surely a contradiction in terms) interpreted this as an ISIS-K member packing explosives into a vehicle for another suicide mission.
It is time for the world to accept that there’s no such thing as a surgical strike and that unmanned drones are among the worst weapons for producing civilian casualties. It would, therefore, make more sense to listen to groups like Palestine Action rather than deploy deadly weapons which have a track record of killing innocent people.
The theme of the DSEI fair at the ExCel Centre was “Integrated Response to Future Threats”, with a focus on drone warfare and surveillance technology. Palestine Action says that this will mean a greater role for drones in British policing as the government enters new procurement and training contracts with the likes of Elbit Systems. According to the activists’ press release, the London fair and a similar exhibition in Liverpool “serve a similar purpose of normalising these firms’ operations and providing an open market for the exchange of the weapons of war. Palestine Action is calling for the cancellation of both events and the ceasing of these firms’ operations on British soil, failing which direct action will continue and will escalate.”
Drone strikes outside the declared war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq are the province of the CIA and the secretive US Joint Special Operations Command. Various US administrations have treated them as official secrets. In the absence of justice for the families of those killed accidentally and/or targeted in drone strikes, civil disobedience and resistance is thus the duty of all reasonable people in war zones like Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere.
It is easy for governments to demonise dead civilians as “terrorists” because most are killed in remote areas where the absence of justice or journalists makes it easier for the authorities to bury their mistakes. With governments prepared to lie or twist the facts, weapons manufacturers should be careful about those to whom they sell their arms, or be ready to be accused of complicity in war crimes.
We now suspect that the Palestinian children killed while playing on a beach in Gaza in 2014 were hit by an Israeli drone strike. The manufacturers are surely just as complicit as the Israeli soldiers who targeted young boys. Again, had journalists not been in an adjacent hotel when the strike took place, Israel might have got away with insulting everyone’s intelligence by claiming that Hamas “terrorists” were on active duty that day.These are the sort of crimes that British police officers should be investigating, instead of arresting the people who draw attention to international war crimes and criminal negligence which led to the killing of Palestine’s 9-year-old Ismayil Bahar, 10-year-old Aed Bahar, 10-year-old Zacharia Bahar, and 11-year-old Muhammed Bahar on that Gaza beach; the Ahmadi family in Kabul earlier this month; and the Khan’s eleven children in Bermal in 2003, as well as the tens of thousands of others in-between. The law of universal jurisdiction exists to allow states to prosecute those responsible for international crimes committed elsewhere. The fact that few, if any such prosecutions go ahead, signals a degree of complicity at the highest levels of governments and judiciaries.
In such cases, it is not always the law that is an ass, but the people charged with implementing it and ensuring that justice is seen to be done for people like the Bahar, Ahmadi, and Khan families. Apologies and compensation are simply not good enough.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.