The difference between a “ceasefire” and a “humanitarian ceasefire”
AIN THE WAR in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas is intensifying, and so are the demands for a “ceasefire” – or “humanitarian pause”. An emergency meeting of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Saudi Arabia on November 11, for example, called the first. Two days later the 27 member states of the European Union confirmed their support for the latter. America will only support suspensions, as will the G7 group of rich countries. The UN, on the other hand, has supported a ceasefire. Israel itself categorically rejects a ceasefire, but on November 9 it agreed to implement four-hour daily “humanitarian pauses” in northern Gaza. So what is the difference between the two, and why does this divide countries and international organizations?
It is not just a matter of semantics. The phrases suggest different ways of working to end the conflict. The UN defines a “humanitarian cessation” as “a temporary cessation of hostilities solely for humanitarian reasons”. Such stops are usually limited to a specified time and to a specific area where humanitarian activities are to be carried out. In the case of Gaza, the moratorium, which only applies to certain neighborhoods in the northern part of the sea, should allow civilians to leave combat zones and permit UN and NGOs to bring in food and water.
In contrast, relaxation goes further. The UN It is defined as “a cessation of hostilities agreed upon by the parties to a conflict, usually as part of a political process”. The aim is to “allow the parties to engage in dialogue, including the possibility of reaching a lasting political settlement”. So it is a long-term settlement, in which both sides stop fighting, often in the entire area of the conflict.
To give two recent examples: at the start of the latest Sudanese civil war in April, the UN negotiation “standoffs” lasting a few hours to deliver much-needed aid, on the clear understanding that both sides would start fighting immediately afterwards. The national “ceasefire” in Yemen in April 2022, however, was widely agreed as a prelude to political talks and subsequent prisoner swaps.
In the context of Gaza, calls for a “cease” or “ceasefire” have different political motives. Supporters of Israel’s right have blasted Hamas after the militant group’s devastating attack on October 7 against a ceasefire at this point. Antony Blinken, the American secretary of state, argues that it would “simply leave Hamas in place, able to regroup and repeat what it has done”. Humanitarian pauses, however, will help minimize civilian casualties and distress, while allowing Israel to continue its military offensive. Meanwhile, those who support a cease-fire, such as many Arab states, usually accompany it with calls for Israel to lift its siege of Gaza and resume negotiations. soft for a Palestinian state. Such a cease-fire would allow Hamas to regroup and rebuild – something Israel and its supporters strongly oppose. That goes some way towards explaining the anger of Israeli leaders when the French president, Emmanuel Macron, called for a ceasefire on 12 November.
As outrage mounts over civilian casualties in Gaza, some advocates for ceasefires are calling for them to be longer and cover a wider area. Some, including the British government on November 14, have proposed a break for a few days during which Hamas would release hostages. But Israel fears that longer pauses, under intense international pressure, could become a de facto ceasefire.
Although long pauses may sound like a truce, the two phrases are still rhetorical proxies used to distinguish between those who view Israeli attacks on Gaza as self-defense and those who see them as Israeli aggression. In many countries the conflict has reopened old wounds. Take Britain’s Labor Party, which has recently attempted to overcome a reputation for antisemitism. Its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, supports a ceasefire, while some leftists outside Palestine, who want a ceasefire, have resigned. Republicans in America routinely mock ceasefire supporters as “pro-Hamas”; a majority of Democratic voters reject a moratorium. Both truce and fire advocates speak the language of humanity, but they mean very different things by it. ■