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Rights groups urge top US lawmaker to block Israel arms deal

Advocacy groups say if Gregory Meeks does not advance resolution to halt the sale, he would be 'actively working against freedom of the press'
Journalists inspect tower that housed their offices after it was levelled in Israeli air strikes, 15 May (MEE/Mohammed al-Hajjar)
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Washington

Free speech advocacy groups have urged top Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks to advance a push to block a $735m arms deal to Israel, after the Israeli military targeted a building housing media offices in Gaza.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced legislation to suspend the deal earlier this week. The bill has so far acquired 14 co-sponsors. Bernie Sanders has also introduced the resolution in the Senate. 

The House measure will not advance even for a debate without the approval of Meeks, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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"Freedom of the press is an essential human right. The Israeli military's bombing of international press offices actively interfered with the ability of journalists to document the situation on the ground in Gaza, including their ability to document human rights abuses and potential war crimes," the groups said in a joint statement on Thursday. 

"Especially in light of numerous reports of social media censorship targeting Palestinians, it's crucial that reporters in Gaza are able to do their jobs safely and without military interference."

The rights groups included Fight for the Future, Freedom of the Press Foundation, MediaJustice, MPower Change and National Lawyers Guild.

"The US government should not be selling weapons to a government that has shown repeatedly it will use them to attack media outlets and journalists," the groups added. 

"As Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep Gregory Meeks must allow a vote on the proposal to halt the arms deal. If he fails to do so, he's actively working against freedom of the press, democracy, and human rights around the globe."

Unlikely to pass

With all Republicans and most Democrats opposed to the idea of conditioning military aid or restricting weapons sales to Israel, Ocasio-Cortez's legislation is unlikely to pass. Sanders's Senate resolution remains with no co-sponsors.

But progressives and Palestinian rights advocates are looking to start a debate on the issue that has long been a focal point of US policy in the Middle East across administrations from both major parties.

Last week Israel levelled a tower hosting the offices of the Associated Press, Middle East Eye and Al Jazeera amongst other outlets. This week it targeted a building housing the offices of a Palestinian news website.

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Israeli officials have said that Hamas was using the media tower but failed to provide evidence backing their claim.

The administration of US President Joe Biden expressed "concern" for the safety of journalists after the attack, without criticising Israel's actions.

The United States provides $3.8bn in military aid to Israel annually.

Earlier this week, reports emerged that Meeks would request a pause on the arms deal to allow for a congressional review. But the following day he confirmed that he would not oppose the deal, saying that "Israel has every right to defend itself".

Congressional approval is not required for arms sales, but lawmakers can block weapon deals with joint legislation in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The president can then veto the legislation. Congress can overturn the president's objection with a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress.

Lawmakers have never succeeded in blocking arms sales to foreign countries. The last time Congress passed resolutions against arms sales was in 2019 in an attempt to block a sale to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Then-president Donald Trump vetoed the legislation.