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Politicians from 12 countries unite to press for arms ban on Israel

<span>Israeli troops in the southern Gaza Strip. Calls for an immediate unconditional ceasefire have so far been rejected by national governments.</span><span>Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Israeli troops in the southern Gaza Strip. Calls for an immediate unconditional ceasefire have so far been rejected by national governments.Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

More than 200 MPs from 12 countries have committed themselves to trying to persuade their governments to impose a ban on arms sales to Israel, arguing they will not be complicit in “Israel’s grave violation of international law” in its assault on Gaza.

The letter, organised by Progressive International, a network of socialist MPs and activists focused on international justice, is seen as the best practical measure possible to bring public anger over the 30,000 deaths of Palestinians in Gaza into the heart of parliaments, where calls for an immediate unconditional ceasefire have so far fallen on deaf ears or been rejected by national governments.

The organisers believe governments supplying arms are vulnerable to legal challenges given the scale of devastation in Gaza that they say extends beyond any definition of self-defence or proportionality.

The signatories are all MPs in parliaments where the governments allow arms sales to Israel. Nine are current or former leaders of political parties, including the former UK Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn; the leader of the Green party in the Australian senate, Larissa Waters; the coordinator of France Unbowed, Manuel Bompard; the national secretary of the Workers’ party of Belgium, Peter Mertens; the Canadian MP and member of the Progressive International council, Niki Ashton; the Brazilian federal deputy Nilto Tatto; the former leader of Die Linke, Bernd Riexinger; the leader of the Spanish party Podemos, Ione Belarra; the leader of the Dutch Socialist party, Jimmy Dijk; the Irish teachta dála (member of parliament) Thomas Pringle; and the former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic party in Turkey, Sezai Temelli. There were two signatories from the US – Democratic congresswomen Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib.

The action by the parliamentarians is supported by the founder of France Unbowed, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Spanish government minister Pablo Bustinduy and the prominent Indian politician Jignesh Mevani.

In the UK, 39 parliamentarians have signed the letter, including Labour, Scottish National party, independent and Social Democrat and Labour party (SDLP) MPs.

In their letter the politicians argue that, after the international court of justice ordered Israel to ensure its forces did not commit acts of genocide in Gaza, “an arms embargo has moved beyond a moral necessity to become a legal requirement”.

This week, UN experts made a similar pronouncement, claiming “any transfer of weapons or ammunition to Israel that would be used in Gaza is likely to violate international humanitarian law and must cease immediately”.

The letter states: “We know that lethal weapons and their parts, made or shipped through our countries, currently aid the Israeli assault on Palestine that has claimed over 30,000 lives across Gaza and the West Bank.

“We cannot wait. Following the interim ruling by the international court of justice (ICJ) on the genocide convention case against the state of Israel, an arms embargo has moved beyond a moral necessity to become a legal requirement.”

The ICJ is still studying a private letter sent by the Israeli government on Monday setting out how the government was seeking to comply with ICJ orders concerning the delivery of humanitarian aid and ending incitements to genocide.

South Africa, as the government that brought the case to the ICJ alleging plausible genocide, has a right to challenge the validity of the Israeli assurances.

The ICJ has no powers of enforcement, and the US is blocking a draft resolution at the UN that would seek to put the ICJ ruling into the form of a UN security council resolution.

A separate attempt at the UN to condemn Israeli actions at a food distribution point in northern Gaza that ended with the killing of as many as 100 Palestinians on Thursday is also being blocked by the US on the basis that it is not clear exactly what happened.

Reports from the Palestinian mission at the UN suggested the UK was prepared to vote for the resolution, rather than abstain, which is the position it has previously adopted on Gaza-related resolutions that the US has opposed.

The UK has said nothing officially about the latest Gaza killings and in its latest effort to help get aid into Gaza has been involved with air drops.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, issued a statement on X saying: “Deep indignation at the images coming from Gaza where civilians have been targeted by Israeli soldiers. I express my strongest condemnation of these shootings and call for truth, justice, and respect for international law.”

The White House, after pressure from Democratic senators, has given the Israeli government a month to sign a document stating that any arms will be used only in line with international humanitarian law.

All US arms importers are being asked to sign the letter. Israel is hugely reliant on US weapons and the letter-signing process at least gives critics within Israel of the government’s behaviour some leverage to challenge the administration to explain how the weapons deliveries can be justified.

The UK says it keeps all arms export licences under review, but as a matter of practice refuses to disclose legal advice given to the government on whether Israel’s actions meet the requirements of international law.

Existing UK arms export criteria say that if there is a “clear risk” a weapon might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law then an arms export should not be licensed.

The UK high court on 20 February threw out a judicial review mounted by two NGOs saying it was a high hurdle for the claimants to prove that the UK government decision to retain the arms export licences was irrational. The high court was passing judgment as much on the government process of decision making as on the decision itself.

The decision leaves scope for MPs to demand to see the legal advice that ministers are receiving.

The Foreign Office minister in the Commons, Andrew Mitchell, cited a legal podcast presented by the Labour peers Charlie Falconer and Helena Kennedy and broadcast on 3 February as evidence it was not possible to know if Israel was breaching international humanitarian law.

• This article was amended on 1 March 2024. An earlier version said that Rashida Tlaib was the sole US signatory to the letter; in fact, it was also signed by the Missouri congresswoman Cori Bush.