As the devastation of the Israel-Hamas war continues to spread, many in the global community are calling for a suspension in the fighting, using phrases such as “ceasefire,” “humanitarian pause” and “cessation of hostilities.”

The terms, used by different parties for different purposes, have specific meanings and implications for the war. We took a look at the definitions of these concepts, who is supporting them and their prospects for success or failure.

What is the definition of a ceasefire?

Under international humanitarian law, a ceasefire is an agreement to halt all military activity for a specified period of time. It is basically a truce, or a temporary suspension of active warfare, rather than a final agreement to end all fighting, although it can sometimes lead to a permanent peace. It can be a negotiated agreement or it can be declared unilaterally. A ceasefire can be used for strategic military purposes or for humanitarian reasons.

Ceasefire or a cessation of hostilities: What’s the difference?

Although these terms can overlap and are often used interchangeably, a cessation of hostilities agreement is usually a longer-term or more permanent arrangement, sometimes known as an armistice.

What is a humanitarian truce or humanitarian pause?

These are the terms for a temporary halt in military activities purely for humanitarian reasons, such as supplying emergency aid to a war zone or allowing the evacuation of injured soldiers or civilians. It is usually less formal and shorter than a ceasefire – although some United Nations officials have recently called for a “72-hour ceasefire,” which could also be considered a humanitarian pause.

What is the UN’s role in this conflict and what has it done?

UN humanitarian agencies have repeatedly called for a ceasefire and a “humanitarian corridor” to allow aid to reach Gaza and to allow the departure of wounded people and other civilians. The UN agencies, along with independent relief organizations, have been instrumental in distributing aid in Gaza and supporting basic services such as health care and water. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), with about 13,000 employees in Gaza, is the biggest aid agency in the territory. But there are few indications that UN diplomats have any influence over the Israeli government or Hamas, and there are few signs that either party would be willing to accept UN mediation or UN-facilitated negotiations.

Who supports a ceasefire or humanitarian truce in the Israel-Hamas war?

At the UN General Assembly last Friday, 120 countries voted for a non-binding motion to support an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities” in the Gaza conflict. Fourteen countries – including Israel, the United States and four European countries – voted against it. Another 45 countries, including Canada, abstained on the matter. Canada had earlier proposed an alternative version that would have explicitly condemned Hamas for its Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel and called on the militant group to release all hostages, but the motion failed to get the necessary two-thirds approval.

Why do Israel and others oppose a ceasefire?

Israel’s government has argued that a ceasefire would effectively require Israel to surrender to terrorism. It has repeatedly asserted that it will crush Hamas and eliminate it as a threat. The Biden administration has called for short humanitarian pauses, but it has argued that a general ceasefire would only benefit Hamas at this point in the conflict. Canada has called for a humanitarian pause or humanitarian truce, using the two terms interchangeably.

Why is there support for a humanitarian truce or ceasefire?

The escalating death toll in Gaza and the destruction caused by Israel’s bombing campaign has heightened international support for a humanitarian pause or truce. Relief agencies and many governments have expressed deep concern for the rising number of civilian deaths in Gaza, including children. They have also made clear that the current flow of emergency aid into Gaza is far from sufficient, and a humanitarian pause or ceasefire would allow more trucks to enter Gaza from neighbouring Egypt. The Palestinian territory has a severe shortage of food, water, fuel and medicine. There are reports of Gazans obliged to drink dirty water or queue for many hours for bread, while hospitals have so many medicine shortages that they are sometimes forced to perform surgery without anesthetic. UN officials have warned that Gaza is on the verge of a complete collapse and have pleaded for a humanitarian corridor to allow a consistent flow of aid.

What is an example of a ceasefire?

In the recent war in Ethiopia, which began in the northern Tigray region in 2020, the Ethiopian government declared an indefinite humanitarian truce in March, 2022. This stopped most of the fighting between the Ethiopian military and Tigrayan forces for five months, but the war resumed in August, 2022. Peace talks, however, were launched in South Africa two months later, leading to a peace agreement in November, 2022, in which the two sides agreed to a “permanent cessation of hostilities.”

What would either option mean for the Israel-Hamas conflict?

A humanitarian pause might allow a substantial boost in aid supplies for Gaza and could allow civilians to be evacuated, but it might not lead to any significant long-term change in the fighting. A ceasefire would be much more significant, especially if it is jointly negotiated by the two sides, but most analysts are skeptical of the potential for a ceasefire in the near term, with both sides seemingly determined to fight on.

The Globe and Mail, November 2, 2023