Ceasefire or humanitarian pause: What’s the difference and why does it matter?

Key Points
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said “there’ll be no ceasefire” until hostages are released.
  • The United Nations’ secretary-general has called for a ceasefire to end the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
  • Leaders around the world are divided between a humanitarian pause and ceasefire calls.
Daily images of the Gaza Strip being bombarded as fighting continues between Hamas and Israel have ignited questions around the best way to help civilians caught in the crossfire.
Western countries have been vocal in their support for Israel’s right to defend itself, but five weeks into the conflict, the humanitarian crisis is prompting calls for a pause or a more permanent ceasefire.
On Wednesday, Israeli forces Hamas previously said there were , under constant fire from Israeli snipers and drones.
More than 11,000 people have been killed in Gaza, 40 per cent of which are children, according to health authorities in Gaza, and there are growing concerns internationally about the lack of food, water, fuel and shelter inside the enclave.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has at least 300 local doctors working in northern Gaza, is one of many non-government agencies calling for an enduring ceasefire as opposed to a daily four-hour humanitarian pause that Israel has recently agreed to.
MSF’s Australian head of programs Simon Eccleshall said the difference between a humanitarian pause and a ceasefire “was a matter of life and death”.

“The situation at the moment is catastrophic. It makes a mockery of international humanitarian law and it makes the deployment of humanitarian aid unrealistic. It makes no sense to deploy relief supplies into Gaza,” he told SBS News.

Eccleshall said only a ceasefire will allow hospitals to function, enable people to flee, allow humanitarian workers to safely enter Gaza and provide life-saving assistance like food, water, shelter and medical supplies.

“The shortage of aid is a deliberate military tactic, and MSF is calling on the Israeli government, the Israeli forces to open the Rafah border crossing to allow in more humanitarian assistance under a ceasefire.”

So how does a ceasefire differ from humanitarian pauses to allow aid in?

What’s the difference between a ceasefire and a humanitarian pause?

The United Nations as a “temporary cessation of hostilities purely for humanitarian purposes” such as getting medicines and water into a region.

It notes that this is agreed on by all parties and is usually for a defined period of time as well as specific to certain neighbourhoods, for example allowing people to leave northern Gaza.

People at a rally hold a banner that reads "ceasefire now"

People attending pro-Palestinaian rallies around the world have been calling for a ceasefire in the Hamas-Israel war. Source: AAP / Darren England

In contrast, a ceasefire is defined as suspension fighting for a longer period agreed on by all parties, this option allows dialogue that may result in a permanent political solution.
Eyal Mayroz is a senior lecturer in peace and conflict studies at the University of Sydney. He said a ceasefire is necessary for negotiations to stop a war.

“To stop a war, you usually need a negotiation over a solution … But it’s very hard to negotiate in the middle of a war. So there’s always calls for a ceasefire,” Mayroz said.

Who is calling for what?

Over the weekend, a dozen leaders – from nations including Qatar, Türkiye, Syria and Iran – met at a summit in Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh and urged Israel to consider a ceasefire.

French President Emmanuel Macron echoed the calls days later, breaking ranks from the 27 member states of the European Union supporting a humanitarian pause.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution on Thursday calling for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses”, as well as safe corridors in Gaza for “a sufficient number of days” to allow aid access.
It called for the “immediate and unconditional release of all hostages held by Hamas and other groups”. It also demanded international humanitarian law be followed by all parties, and that Gaza’s civilian population not be deprived of the basic services and aid necessary to their survival.
The vote passed 12-0, with the United States, United Kingdom and Russia abstaining. The US and UK abstained due to the resolution not explicitly condemning Hamas’ 7 October attack, while Russia abstained as the resolution did not call for a ceasefire.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has repeatedly called for an urgent ceasefire in the enclave, stating that
The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has advocated for humanitarian pauses which allow aid to enter, and backed Israel’s rejection of a ceasefire on the grounds of demanding the return of 240 hostages taken by Hamas militants.
Hamas is a Palestinian military and political group, which has gained power in the Gaza Strip since winning legislative elections there in 2006. Its stated aim is to establish a Palestinian state, while refusing to recognise Israel’s right to exist.
Hamas, in its entirety, is designated as a terrorist organisation by countries including Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. New Zealand and Paraguay list only its military wing as a terrorist group. In 2018, the United Nations General Assembly voted against a resolution condemning Hamas in its entirety as a terrorist organisation.

Australia has been measured in its approach, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong facing criticism for stating steps should be taken towards a ceasefire in the Hamas-Israel war.

Wong said while she understood that Hamas was “burrowed into civilian infrastructure”, international humanitarian law required the protection of hospitals.

“It cannot be one-sided. We know that Hamas is still holding hostages, and we know that a ceasefire must be agreed between the parties. But we can also say that Israel should do everything it can to observe international humanitarian law,” Wong told ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.

What is the opposition to a ceasefire?

The Israeli government has pledged to completely wipe out Hamas, following the group’s 7 October attack on Israel, with more than 1,200 people killed and over 240 hostages taken.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has as it would “hamper the war effort”.
“There’ll be no ceasefire, no general ceasefire in Gaza without the release of our hostages,” he told ABC America last week.

“We’ll check the circumstances in order to enable goods, humanitarian goods to come in or individual hostages to leave, but I don’t think there’s going to be a general ceasefire.”

Mayroz suggested the reluctance to a ceasefire could be due to a perceived disadvantage for the Israeli Defence Forces, as it would allow Hamas to get organised and potentially move hostages.

He also said that the IDF is running a “dynamic” military campaign, with its forces constantly moving. A ceasefire could make the IDF stationary and perhaps heighten the risk of guerilla attacks.

Has something similar happened before?

It’s not the first time that Israel and Hamas have engaged in hostilities. They most recently negotiated a ceasefire in May 2021, which Israel argues Hamas broke on 7 October.

Violence also flared up in 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2014, involving Israeli air raids and Palestinian rocket fire, and sometimes also cross-border incursions by either side.

In 2014, the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers led to a seven-week war, in which more than 2,200 Palestinians were killed.
Internationally, Mayroz said there are plenty of examples of both ceasefires and humanitarian pauses.

He noted in May 2022, Russia allowed a vital humanitarian corridor for over 100 Ukrainian steelworkers to escape a besieged factory in Mariupol.