How calls for a Gaza ceasefire at the UN have shifted since October

US has repeatedly vetoed resolutions demanding an immediate ceasefire at the Security Council

America vetoes UN Security Council resolution on Israel-Gaza war

America vetoes UN Security Council resolution on Israel-Gaza war
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The UN has debated a range of calls for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza since the outset of the war in October.

The differences in terminology may appear technical but they have had a critical impact on Palestinians in Gaza, where almost 30,000 people have been killed in about five months of war.

"The distinction between a permanent ceasefire and temporary pause is not a purely theoretical one," said Hassan Al Hassan, research fellow for Middle East Policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

"The US has advocated temporary humanitarian pauses but has opposed a permanent ceasefire that would put an end to the war.

"The US’s shielding of Israel from a binding UN Security Council resolution imposing a permanent ceasefire has enabled Israel to pursue its devastating military campaign."

Humanitarian truce

The first calls for a pause to the fighting centred on a "humanitarian truce" aimed at providing a temporary and brief pause in combat to allow aid and medical supplies to reach civilians in Gaza.

These calls emerged shortly after Israel began its offensive on Gaza following Hamas's October 7 attacks in which 1,200 people were killed and about 240 taken hostage.

The US and Israel's other western allies reacted to October 7 with a show of support for the war in Gaza. The US cited Israel's "right to defend itself" in its decision to veto a resolution proposed by Brazil at the UN Security Council on October 18 that called for "humanitarian pauses to allow full, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for United Nations humanitarian agencies".

On October 27, the UN General Assembly voted for an Arab-backed resolution that called for “an immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities”.

Despite the resolution passing overwhelmingly with 120 votes, UNGA resolutions are non-binding so it was ignored by Israel.

In pushing for an immediate humanitarian truce that would lead to a longer-term "cessation of hostilities", the resolution fell short of calling for a permanent ceasefire immediately and instead laid out a phased plan towards a ceasefire with a focus on humanitarian relief for civilians in Gaza.

Israel condemned the vote and said the UN no longer held "even one ounce of legitimacy or relevance".

The US also continued to oppose any calls for a ceasefire, including by its Arab allies, while conducting shuttle diplomacy throughout the region in an attempt to contain the conflict.

The Security Council eventually passed the first binding resolution to pause the fighting on November 15, when the US chose not to exercise its veto.

The resolution called “for urgent and extended humanitarian pauses and corridors throughout the Gaza Strip for a sufficient number of days”. It did not mention a ceasefire.

The vote took place as talks towards a November truce and hostage exchange between Israel and Hamas mediated by Qatar were building momentum. Later that month, the two sides agreed on a four-day break in fighting to facilitate the exchange of hostages held by Hamas and Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, and an increase in humanitarian aid entering Gaza. The truce was later extended for three more days.

The international community, including the US, welcomed the pause in fighting, during which Hamas released 105 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian detainees.

Hamas accused Israel of repeated violations of the truce and responded by launching rockets into Israel as the Israeli military renewed strikes on Gaza.

Immediate humanitarian ceasefire

Following the collapse of the November truce and the renewal of fighting in Gaza, the UNGA passed a non-binding resolution with overwhelming support that called for "an immediate humanitarian ceasefire”.

The non-binding resolution was passed on December 12, with 153 votes in favour, and demanded “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire” while calling for the protection of civilians, humanitarian access and the “immediate and unconditional” release of all hostages.

While the non-binding resolution was the first time a "ceasefire" was passed at the UN, it did not give a duration and focused on humanitarian access and the protection of civilians in Gaza in line with the previous "humanitarian truce".

Palestinians hailed the vote as a "historic day" that showed global support for a ceasefire.

"Virtually the entire world is calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire," Majed Bamya, Deputy Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN, told The National.

"The US is very isolated in its rejection of calls for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire."

Israel and the US remained opposed to any notion of a ceasefire because Israel had not achieved its war aims, while Hamas continued to advocate for a permanent ceasefire tied to an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

At the time, Washington’s UN envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield said “any ceasefire right now would be temporary at the best and dangerous at worst”.

UN overwhelmingly adopts resolution for 'humanitarian truce' in Gaza

UN overwhelmingly adopts resolution for 'humanitarian truce' in Gaza

Sustainable ceasefire

The Security Council passed the first resolution referring to a longer-term ceasefire, or "cessation of hostilities", later in December.

The US eventually agreed to not veto a resolution crafted by the UAE after four rounds of wrangling over the original text, which had proposed “an urgent and sustainable cessation of hostilities”.

The version that eventually passed called for "urgent steps ... for creating the conditions for a sustainable cessation of hostilities".

However, the resolution did not call for an urgent ceasefire and did not stop the Israeli army from escalating its operations in southern Gaza.

“By signing off on this, the council would essentially be giving the Israeli armed forces complete freedom of movement for further clearing of the Gaza Strip,” Russia's UN ambassador told the council ahead of the vote at the time.

The focus on a "sustainable" ceasefire has since been embraced by key European countries.

In a joint letter, UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock laid out their position in December.

“Our goal cannot simply be an end to fighting today,” they wrote. "It must be peace lasting for days, years, generations. We therefore support a ceasefire but only if it is sustainable.

“We do not believe that calling right now for a general and immediate ceasefire, hoping it somehow becomes permanent, is the way forward."

Temporary ceasefire

Washington signalled a break in its previous blanket opposition to any resolution calling for a ceasefire at the UN with a draft resolution that included the words "temporary ceasefire" for the first time last week.

The draft text, seen by The National, came after the US again vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for an "immediate ceasefire", this time proposed by Algeria.

The US text still calls for a temporary ceasefire only if certain conditions are met – "as soon as practical, based on the formula of all hostages being released" – but reflects a shift in Washington's position as it grows wary of the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza and attempts to deal with the regional spillover of the war.

While the draft resolution has not yet been proposed at the UN, Washington is concurrently pushing for a temporary ceasefire and hostage exchange along with Qatari and Egyptian mediators in talks in Doha and Cairo.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has signalled it might accept a temporary ceasefire to secure a popular deal for the remaining hostages but remains opposed to a more permanent ceasefire.

Mr Netanyahu has vowed the Israeli military will continue its offensive after a pause in the fighting until it achieves "total victory" against Hamas.

The National's Mina Aldroubi contributed to this story

Updated: February 28, 2024, 11:26 AM