What do Western politicians mean when they call for a 'sustainable ceasefire'?

What do Western politicians mean when they call for a 'sustainable ceasefire'?
Why is the term 'sustainable ceasefire' being used by Western politicians, and why have we seen it crop up so often in the past few days?
5 min read
19 December, 2023
UK FM David Cameron will meet the French president and Italian PM to discuss a 'sustainable ceasefire' for Gaza [Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty]

Representatives from Western governments - including France, Germany, and the UK - have used a very particular term in recent days to describe what they want to happen in Israel's war on Gaza - a "sustainable ceasefire".

Though these countries are continuing to lend Israel their strong support, their rhetoric has gradually shifted during the course of Israel's brutal onslaught on the besieged territory which has killed almost 20,000 people since 7 October.

Human rights groups and many other governments worldwide have called not for a "sustainable ceasefire", but an "immediate" one.

Why is the term "sustainable ceasefire" being used, and why has it cropped up so often in the recent few days?

Who has called for a 'sustainable ceasefire'?

The UK and German foreign ministers, David Cameron and Annalena Baerbock, called for a "sustainable ceasefire" last week in a joint opinion piece. 

On Monday, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also called for a "sustainable ceasefire"; a few hours later, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer made the same call.

This appears to bridge the "immediate" versus "sustainable" divide, France's foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, called for an "immediate and durable truce" in Gaza on Sunday.

Cameron is due on Tuesday to meet French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to call for "a sustainable ceasefire, leading to a sustainable peace", according to an official statement.

Why not an 'immediate ceasefire'?

There have been wide calls for an immediate ceasefire while the chant of "ceasefire now" has rung at protests in cities across the world.

But the UK and the US in particular have voted against or have abstained from voting for UN resolutions calling for such a ceasefire in Gaza.

Many Western governments say that Israel's offensive on Gaza is permissible because Israel has "a right to defend itself" against Hamas,  the Palestinian group that launched a large-scale attack on Israel on 7 October and controls the coastal enclave.

In their joint opinion piece for The Times, Baerbock and Cameron claimed that an immediate ceasefire would not facilitate a longer-lasting peace - and placed blame for the massacre in Gaza on Hamas.

The foreign ministers said that they "do not believe that calling right now for a general and immediate ceasefire, hoping it somehow becomes permanent, is the way forward.

"It ignores why Israel is forced to defend itself: Hamas barbarically attacked Israel and still fires rockets to kill Israeli citizens every day," they claimed.

British minister Lord Callanan told Sky News on Monday that a sustainable ceasefire means that "Hamas would be eliminated, it would not be in control of Gaza, and hopefully a peaceful Palestinian government would exist alongside Israel".

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Hamas has said that it is open to an immediate ceasefire deal.

Human rights groups and governments more critical of Israel have repeated their calls for an immediate ceasefire, to stop the death toll from continuing to spiral and to allow aid and medical treatment to reach Gaza's 2.3 million-strong population - and later, reconstruction of the devastated Palestinian territory.

Shifting rhetoric 

The new call by the West for some sort of ceasefire could be seen as a step in the right direction, considering these governments' stances in earlier stages of the war.

Israel committed massacres from the outset of its war, including airstrikes on hospitals that killed hundreds - but at the time, the UK spoke of Israel's right to defend itself, without speaking of Tel Aviv's need to adhere to international humanitarian law. 

They later called for Israel to act in accordance with such laws, then for a "humanitarian pause" to be reached.

A short-term truce was eventually agreed that allowed a brief respite for Palestinians in Gaza and the entry of aid - but Israel resumed its war with new vigour on 1 December.

The death toll has since shot up, and images, testimony, and video of Israeli brutality towards Palestinians are continuing to shock the world and impact public opinion.

Attacks on vessels travelling through the Red Sea by Yemen's Houthi rebels as a response to Israel's war on Gaza are dealing a serious blow to international trade, and companies including BP have moved to reroute their vessels, at great cost.

Pro-Palestine groups say the call for a "sustainable ceasefire" is a small move in the right direction.

However, this call should have come far earlier, they say, and should be for an immediate truce.

"This is a tiptoe in the right direction when we are still miles away from anything resembling meaningful action," Tayab Ali, director of the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP) said on Monday.

"The only way a ceasefire can truly be 'sustainable' is if the killing of Palestinian civilians stops immediately and international humanitarian law is upheld," the London-based group said.

"It’s remarkable that it has taken Sunak and Starmer this long to call for a ceasefire and more remarkable still how weak and watered down these calls are."

What might happen next?

The UN Security Council had been scheduled to vote on a ceasefire resolution introduced by the UAE on Monday.

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A draft of the resolution called for an "urgent and sustainable cessation of hostilities" in Gaza, to allow "safe and unhindered humanitarian access" - but the UAE asked for the vote to be postponed until Tuesday to allow for talks to continue, diplomatic sources reportedly said.

There are also talks happening outside of the UN process, to "renew the humanitarian pause", Qatar has said. The last "pause" saw scores of Israeli hostages and hundreds of Palestinian detainees released in an exchange.

Hamas has said it is "ready for a prisoner exchange deal, but after a ceasefire", an official from the group said Tuesday.