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Gaza war: Why are leaders calling for 'pause', not ceasefire

Gaza war: What is the difference between a humanitarian pause and a ceasefire?
4 min read
02 November, 2023
Why are Western leaders reluctant to call for a ceasefire and are choosing instead to back a 'humanitarian pause'?
US President Joe Biden has refused a ceasefire, calling instead for a humanitarian pause [Getty]

The decision of whether to call for a "ceasefire" or a "humanitarian pause" over Israel's bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip has split political leaders globally.

Israel began a relentless bombing campaign against Gaza on 7 October after a surprise attack by Hamas fighters, which killed some 1,400 Israelis.

Israel's bombing of the already impoverished enclave has killed over 9,000 Palestinians, including at least 3,750 children and over 2,325 women, in just 26 days, in addition to months of deadly raids in the occupied West Bank.

Israel has also imposed a "total siege" on civilians in Gaza, banning the entry of fuel and food as well as goods essential for survival - a move banned under international law.

So why have Western leaders been so reluctant to call for a ceasefire and choose to back a "humanitarian pause"?

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What is a humanitarian pause?

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a humanitarian pause is defined as a "temporary cessation of hostilities purely for humanitarian purposes", to allow aid into war zones.

It requires "the agreement of all relevant parties", and is usually in force for "a defined period and specific geographic area where the humanitarian activities are to be carried out".

There has been a growing consensus in the international community for at least a humanitarian pause in the war on Gaza to facilitate the delivery of much-needed aid.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on 28 October that he was "encouraged in the last days by what seemed to be a growing consensus in the international community, including the countries supporting Israel, for the need of at least a humanitarian pause in the fighting".

However, Israel has only escalated its bombardment and targeted refugee camps and hospitals where thousands of civilians are sheltering, "undermining the referred humanitarian objectives", according to Guterres, who also stressed concern for UN staff in Gaza who were to deliver humanitarian assistance.

Guterres has made a strong appeal for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire instead, which will also see the "delivery of humanitarian relief at the level that corresponds to the dramatic needs of the people in Gaza, where a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in front of our eyes".

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What is a ceasefire?

OCHA defines a ceasefire as a "suspension of fighting agreed upon by the parties to a conflict, typically as part of a political process". It is intended to be long-term and often covers the entire geographic area of the conflict.

Its aim is usually "to allow parties to engage in dialogue, including the possibility of reaching a permanent political settlement", according to OCHA.

Calls for a ceasefire have been growing louder worldwide, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets globally to demand an end to Israel's bombing of Gaza, especially in countries where governments have not backed a ceasefire.

A senior UN official strongly criticised the UN in a retirement letter for not stopping what he called "a genocide unfolding before our eyes" in Gaza.

Craig Mokhiber, also a US human rights lawyer, said "the current wholesale slaughter of the Palestinian people" is rooted in decades of persecution by Israel "based entirely upon their status as Arabs and coupled with explicit statements of intent by leaders in the Israeli government and military".

Mokhiber left his job heading the New York office of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on 31 October.

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Why are countries divided on a ceasefire?

Last week, permanent members of the UN Security Council Russia and China vetoed a push for a humanitarian pause in Gaza, calling instead for a ceasefire. The motion was quickly vetoed by traditional backers of Israel, the US, and the UK.

The White House has called for "humanitarian pauses" to allow aid to be delivered into Gaza or to carry out evacuations, but has so far refused to discuss a ceasefire, believing it would exclusively play into the hands of Hamas.

The European Union said it would not push for a ceasefire due to the ongoing "attacks" by Hamas.

French President Emmanuel Macron, during a visit of solidarity with Israel, went further by suggesting the formation of an international coalition to fight Hamas.

Meanwhile, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez proposed holding a peace conference to end the conflict between Israel and Palestine and the recognition of a Palestinian state.

Sanchez called for an immediate ceasefire to stop Israel's attacks on Palestine in the Gaza Strip, adding that aid should be allowed to enter permanently in order to meet humanitarian needs.

Arab states have also called for a ceasefire and comprehensive peace in line with the approved terms of reference and the Arab Peace Initiative.

The Arab Group at the UN said this is the only way to secure a lasting peace is the establishment of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital based on the borders of 4 June 1967.

Israel's relentless war on Gaza entered its 27th day on Thursday.