Israel-Hamas War: What's The Difference Between A Humanitarian Pause And A Ceasefire?

The US says the Israelis will introduce daily pauses in the fighting, but that falls short of a ceasefire.
A protester holds a 'Ceasefire now' placard during the demonstration in London.
A protester holds a 'Ceasefire now' placard during the demonstration in London.
SOPA Images via Getty Images

The White House says Israel has agreed to start implementing a daily humanitarian pause during its attacks on Gaza for four hours at a time.

More than a month since the Israel-Hamas war began, the international community has been increasingly calling for some form of intervention for the Palestinian territory of Gaza.

A daily pause could help civilians flee the war zone – but it is still a long way off satisfying the pleas for a complete ceasefire.

Here’s why the two concepts are so different – and what they would mean for the war.

What is a ceasefire?

The website for the Peace Agreements Database describes ceasefire as the antonym of the military phrase, “open fire”. It’s a long-term “cessation of hostilities,” according to the United Nations’ website.

A ceasefire is usually seen as a crucial part of the peace process, and traditionally indicates a willingness from both parties to end all hostilities and violence.

It can be a verbal or written agreement, with public or secret terms, and is sometimes initiated by a third party mediator.

What is a humanitarian pause?

The UN defines this as a “temporary cessation of hostilities” so humanitarian aid can be taken into the war zones.

It lasts for a defined period and occurs in a specific area – meaning violence is expected to continue at some point.

What do we know about Israel’s new daily pause?

According to the Biden administration, the US president asked Benjamin Netanyahu to institute this pause on Monday.

Associated Press reports that the exact details are yet to be confirmed, but the first one is expected to be announced on Thursday – and Israel has suggested it would announce each window at least three hours in advance.

According to US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, Israel has agreed to open a second corridor for civilians to flee northern Gaza, along its coastal road.

There is already one open for Palestinians to evacuate through the territory’s main north-sea highway.

At the moment, there’s only one route out of Gaza altogether, the Rafah Crossing into Egypt. However, only a handful of severely injured Palestinians, and dual nationals (or foreign passport-holders) have been able to leave.

Much of the international community has been calling for this kind of temporary pause because the Palestinian territory of Gaza has been under siege for more than a month.

Food, fuel and goods imports have been blocked by Israeli forces, along with electricity and most water supplies, in retaliation for the Palestinian militants Hamas’ massacre on Israeli soil on October 7.

Israel has called for people to leave northern Gaza as it has begun its ground invasion, claiming this is an effort to flush out Hamas fighters.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza claims more than 10,300 people have been killed since the war began. Israel claims 1,400 people on Israeli soil have been killed in the same period.

Smoke from Israeli bombardment rises behind people fleeing Gaza City and other parts of the northern Gaza Strip towards the south of the Palestinian enclave as they walk along a highway on November 9, 2023
Smoke from Israeli bombardment rises behind people fleeing Gaza City and other parts of the northern Gaza Strip towards the south of the Palestinian enclave as they walk along a highway on November 9, 2023
MOHAMMED ABED via Getty Images

Who doesn’t want a ceasefire – and why?

Ceasefires can be seen as a chance for either party to reload or remobilise.

However, Netanyahu previously claimed that a ceasefire would mean asking Israel to surrender to terrorism and barbarism.

He said: “That will not happen. The Bible says that there is a time for peace and a time for war. This is a time for war.”

He said Israel would continue to pursue Hamas “monsters”.

The Israeli government has also rejected Hamas’ suggestion to swap the remaining hostage for Palestinians currently in Israeli prisons – saying any proposal to release the captives would only result in a “temporary pause”.

The Guardian has reported that Netanyahu rejected a deal for a five-day ceasefire with militant groups in exchange for the release of some of the hostages.

Meanwhile, the UK government, the EU and the US have previously made their support for a humanitarian pause clear.

However, only 14 countries opposed a Jordanian motion calling for a sustained humanitarian truce at the UN general assembly at the end of October.

By 120 votes to 14 – and 45 countries abstaining – Jordan’s motion, which also called for the unconditional release of captives, went through.

The UK, Ukraine, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Australia were among the countries choosing to abstain from the motion.

Education minister Robert Halfon has previously explained that the UK did not back the “effective ceasefire” because there was no explicit condemnation of Hamas.

He also told Sky News: “The government have been absolutely clear that a ceasefire at this time is not the answer.

“As ceasefire at this time would allow Hamas to regroup, it doesn’t mean release of the hostages, there’s no guarantee Hamas would keep the ceasefire – they haven’t kept ceasefires in the past.

“But that is different to having a humanitarian port to allow aid to get through.”

The US chose not to back the motion at all, instead of just abstaining. Like many other Western allies, Washington wanted the motion to explicitly mention Hamas, rather than just condemning “all attacks of violence”. The motion did not explain that the hostages were held by Hamas, either.

However, this does not mean it’s a binding decision.

Only the UN security council can pass binding motions on such matters – and they cannot do so right now without Russia or the US using their veto power and they’re backing opposite sides in the Israel-Hamas war.

The issue is also affecting the UK’s Labour Party.

Labour mayors Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham, and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, all called for a ceasefire – while leader Sir Keir Starmer has not.

Shadow cabinet minister Steve Reed has previously said humanitarian pauses would let aid enter Gaza “without stopping Israel taking action to disable the terrorists who attacked them in the first place”.

One person from Labour’s front bench, Imran Hussain, has already resigned over Starmer’s response to the war.


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