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Ceasefire or pause? Words UN members can’t agree on to stop Israel’s bombs

During a visit to Moscow on Friday, a member of a Hamas delegation reportedly said that the group won’t release the captives taken during the October 7 attacks on Israel until a ceasefire agreement has been reached.

The news comes as the United Nations Security Council struggles to agree on whether to impose a ceasefire or a humanitarian pause allowing aid to flow to the Gaza Strip’s besieged population – largely because of political differences among members.

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On Wednesday, Russia and China vetoed a United States resolution calling for a “humanitarian pause”. They wanted a “ceasefire”, an option proposed twice by Russia, which was yesterday vetoed by the United Kingdom and the US, both of whom are accustomed to shielding Israel from Security Council action.

Last week, the US vetoed a Brazilian-drafted resolution for “humanitarian pauses”, arguing that it needed time for on-the-ground diplomatic efforts. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), fewer than 70 trucks had been allowed entry into Gaza from the Rafah crossing with Egypt as of Tuesday night – a drop in the ocean.

Palestinians in Gaza have been deprived of food, water and medicine, especially since Israel announced a complete siege on the enclave, blocking the entry of all essential supplies before the recent trickle of aid.

UNRWA, the main UN agency in Gaza, on Wednesday warned it will be forced to scale back its operations in the Strip if fuel isn’t allowed in.

As the Security Council stalls, the UN General Assembly will vote on a non-binding draft resolution on Friday by the Arab group, which is calling for unrestricted humanitarian aid. European Union leaders will also be trying to reach a common position in Brussels – though positions in the bloc vary widely.

So what are the differences in the words that the world’s nations are quibbling over, as Gaza awaits help?


It essentially means that the fighting stops. A ceasefire is subject to agreement by all parties and usually involves a formal political process with commitments to de-escalate conflict, such as withdrawing weapons or repositioning forces. It tends to cover the entire geographical area on which the war is being waged. It may lead to a permanent settlement.

This is the long-term option rejected by the US, the UK and other countries, which back Israel’s right to defend itself — by continuing its war on Gaza. By contrast, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has publicly called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

Samir Puri, a visiting lecturer on war studies at King’s College London, thinks a ceasefire is “unimaginable” in the present circumstances, given that “a binding agreement with signatories and associated de-escalatory obligations” would be required.”They take real effort to negotiate in the first place,” he says.

Cessation of hostilities

Many use this term as a synonym for ceasefire. However, a cessation of hostilities is generally less structured. Agreements don’t tend to cover issues like objectives, timelines, security and monitoring.

They enable parties to break from fighting as a step to talking and perhaps moving towards a sustained ceasefire. In this sense, cessation could be viewed as a potential stepping stone towards ending the war.

For Puri, this is a more realistic option for the UNSC.

“It could be agreed to quicker and is not expected to last, necessarily,” he said.


It’s the white flag option. The term truce is even looser than a cessation of hostilities, with no formal negotiations. Parties in conflict may have decided to take a break after intensive combat. By their very nature, truces may come and go during a conflict, sometimes applying to specific areas.

They can enable activities like the removal of the wounded or burial of the dead. It is understood that opposing forces should not change positions while a truce is in force.

Humanitarian pause

This refers to the temporary cessation of fighting, purely for humanitarian reasons. Pauses are sometimes confined to a specific geographical area where the humanitarian activities are being carried out. Usually in force for a defined period, a pause can last as little as a few hours.

The US’s initial draft resolution omitted any mention of a pause, but underlined Israel’s right to defend itself and demanded that Iran stop arming its proxies in the region. It toned down the version rejected on Wednesday, including a “call for all measures necessary, such as humanitarian pauses”.

“A humanitarian pause would effectively be a truce to allow passage of aid or displaced people,” says Puri.

Days of tranquility

This is a mechanism that would grant medics and other personnel access to war zones on specific days. It is often used by UNICEF to ensure that children have access to healthcare during conflict. It was first used in El Salvador in 1985 when the UN’s children’s agency negotiated a three-day break in fighting to enable children to be immunised.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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