What exactly is a ceasefire, and why is it so difficult to agree on one in Gaza?

Marika Sosnowski – via The Conversation

Barely a week after Hamas’ attack on Israeli soldiers and civilians on October 7 and the subsequent airstrikes by the Israeli Defence Force on the Gaza Strip, talk of a ceasefire had already begun.

More than five weeks into the war, calls for a ceasefire have only grown louder. Visiting the White House this week, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said, a “ceasefire is a must for the sake of humanity.”

Israel has thus far refused to discuss a ceasefire without the release of the 240 hostages being held by Hamas.

But what exactly is a ceasefire, and how do they work? And what sort of arrangement would be most effective in Gaza?

Different terms, different meanings

Virtually as old as conflict itself, a ceasefire is an ancient way of formalising a halt to armed violence between warring parties for a certain period of time. Historically, the terms truce and armistice were used as synonyms.

Perhaps surprisingly, international humanitarian law has no provisions relating specifically to when ceasefires should be negotiated, what they need to contain or how they need to be applied.

It is only in the last 50 years or so that a range of new terminology has become commonplace to describe the phenomenon of a “ceasefire”. These include:

Many of these terms have been used in the Gaza conflict. For instance, in late October, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to cessation of hostilities”.

In the Security Council, the US has called for “humanitarian pauses”, but not a “ceasefire”. Russia, meanwhile, has demanded a “humanitarian ceasefire”, but is unhappy with a “truce” or “pauses”.

This week, Hamas said it is willing to release 70 hostages in exchange for a five-day “truce”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously rejected a “temporary truce”, but under pressure from the US, has agreed this week to implement daily four-hour “humanitarian pauses”.

While there have been attempts to differentiate between these terms, states continue to place different emphasis or apply different meanings to them in ad hoc ways. This makes finding common ground difficult.

What could be achieved in Gaza instead

So, if we have no common definitions as a starting point, how do parties come to any useful or enforceable agreement on a ceasefire?

Thus far in Gaza, the answer has mostly been they don’t. It may be simplistic to say that words are what we use as humans to make sense of and order the world, but in this context, specifics matter.

Arguably, in focusing so squarely on getting to a halt in fighting (whatever we want to call that), we lose sight of many other important factors and actions that may or may not fall under the broad and open-to-interpretation umbrella term of “ceasefire”.

For example, Israel and Hamas might find agreement if negotiators focused on more specific details or issues, such as:

  • the amount of ordnance being used by both sides on a daily basis, and what kind of ordnance
  • where or what is targeted by both sides
  • the number of aid convoys allowed into Gaza, where they would come from, where they would go and what they would be carrying
  • the number and/or nationality of hostages to be released and at what regularity.

I am not a negotiator and this is not an exhaustive list. What it hopes to illustrate is that efforts for a grand-bargain-type ceasefire should not be prioritised over more nuanced, and perhaps tangible, efforts for other types of lulls in fighting.

How ceasefires can be problematic

At the same time, it should not be forgotten that ceasefires can have unintended consequences. Often these consequences are far from beneficial, positive or humanitarian – the kinds of things we expect from a ceasefire.

For example, in Syria, local ceasefires and reconciliation agreements have been used during the civil war to allow for the evacuation of citizens from their homes in places like Old Homs and Daraya.

Subsequently, a raft of presidential decrees were enacted that enabled the Syrian regime to permanently reappropriate their properties. State-backed reconstruction and development projects such as Basila City (which ironically means “Peace City” in old Aramaic), Marouta and Homs Dream were then built on the land acquired via the ceasefire agreements.

Likewise, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, humanitarian corridors were implemented that allowed people from the besieged city of Mariupol to evacuate. Shortly afterwards, however, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of laying landmines within the corridors to thwart civilians’ ability to flee.

In another example, humanitarian corridors that Russia proposed setting up would not lead civilians to safety, but rather into Russia or its close ally Belarus.

Israel has similarly announced “safe corridors” enabling mass displacement of civilians from the north to the south of the country. The relocation is supposedly for civilians’ own safety, despite the fact airstrikes are killing civilians there, too. Many also fear the supposed “safe corridors” could lead to a permanent displacement of Gazans.

Israel has reportedly also canvassed support for a humanitarian corridor that would direct Palestinians towards the Sinai peninsula in Egypt, in effect making them an Egyptian problem with little possibility of return. The idea has unsurprisingly been rejected by both the Palestinians and Egypt.

A ceasefire is only the beginning

Despite all this, ceasefires are perhaps the best-formalised tools humans have so far devised to halt the violence of armed conflict for a time.

Therefore, given the suffering of civilians on both sides in the Israel-Hamas conflict, it is imperative some form of ceasefire happens. However, we should not be blinded by calls for a ceasefire (whatever terms are used), but stay alert to the hazards that ceasefires can themselves create.

In any case, a ceasefire that stops violence for four hours, four days or four months will only be the beginning of the more challenging work that needs to be done to bring meaningful and long-term security and stability to both Palestinians and Israelis.

Marika Sosnowski is postdoctoral research fellow of The University of Melbourne. This article first appeared on The Conversation