For any 'humanitarian pause' in Gaza to work, it must be done in good faith

The momentum for breaks in hostilities is building, but too much of the language around it remains transactional

Protesters in Tel Aviv demand a ceasefire in Gaza and the dismissal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Anadolu
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The G7 countries offered their support this week for “humanitarian pauses to facilitate urgently needed assistance, civilian movement and release of hostages” in the Israel-Gaza war.

On the surface, this represents a small sliver of progress for the territory after more than a month of conflict. Gaza’s media office said on Wednesday that more than 40,000 people had been killed, injured or were missing since the war began and at least 1.5 million people have been displaced in the enclave.

The UN Security Council has itself, until now, been unable to deliver any resolution on the conflict. Instead, it has been tangled up in disagreement among its members over whether it can progress a ceasefire or a humanitarian pause, neither of which attained the requisite support.

The need for action grows greater by the day, which is why the G7 words from Tokyo and the more recent general mood music from US officials might have been read as long overdue succour.

The UN defines a humanitarian pause as “a temporary cessation of hostilities purely for humanitarian purposes. Requiring the agreement of all relevant parties, it is usually for a defined period and specific geographic area where the humanitarian activities are to be carried out.“

A ceasefire, meanwhile, is regarded as “a suspension of fighting agreed upon by the parties to a conflict. Its aim is usually to allow parties to engage in dialogue, including the possibility of reaching a permanent political settlement.“

Not even the terrible statistics of suffering that surround this conflict have been enough prior to this week to persuade the most truculent members of the international community to provide relief for those caught by the Gaza conflict.

So why has it been so difficult to get to this point and what are the prospects for humanitarian pauses to succeed?

Humanitarian pauses were used first in Indonesia’s Aceh province at the beginning of the 21st century, where an initial pause in hostilities was implemented to get aid moving and to build confidence and space for dialogue.

The need for action grows greater by the day

That initial pause received criticism and, according to academic review, also gave way to further rounds of violence, although it did eventually help pave the way to broader peace.

Contemporary observers should note that the document that delivered the initial pause provided a clear platform and timetable. Contrast that with the situation today in Israel-Gaza, where the positions are calcified and uncompromising.

Pauses have been used in Yemen, Syria, as well as in Gaza previously and all bear similar hallmarks, with questions raised about overall effectiveness and repeated violations, as well as concerns that instituting a pause essentially codifies the principle of conflict rather than seeking to resolve it. The specific pause in Gaza in 2014 was only partially successful when it was instituted.

The Israeli military and its politicians, meanwhile, continue to argue that there is little or no need for pauses, even as the US says it has repeatedly articulated “the benefits” of humanitarian pauses to its ally.

The Israeli military suggests it is enabling humanitarian initiatives already, even as it continues its ground operation and punishing air strikes. On Wednesday, it claimed 760 lorries had delivered 3,000 tonnes of food and 1,720 tonnes of medical equipment since the conflict began. That is only a fraction of what the territory needs. Food stocks have dwindled to alarming levels in Gaza.

Further, having framed its intervention into Gaza as a mission to destroy Hamas after the horrific October 7 attacks and rescue the hundreds held captive, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, shows no sign of changing tack.

“There will be no general ceasefire in Gaza, without the release of our hostages. As far as tactical little pauses – an hour here, an hour there – we’ve had them before, I suppose we will check the circumstances in order to enable humanitarian goods or our individual hostages to leave,” Mr Netanyahu told ABC news earlier this week. A stance he reiterated on Wednesday after rumours suggested mediation was underway to secure the release of a dozen hostages with a three-day pause.

Other Israeli politicians argue any negotiated temporary halt will be interpreted as weakness. Former prime minister Naftali Bennett said on Fox News this week that “the moment we pause in the middle of the war it gives time for our enemies to replenish themselves and in effect it lengthens the war. Every day of pause is another two weeks of war, which means many more dead people on both sides.”

While exhibiting persistent and generally unwavering support for Israel, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken showed signs of more flexibility during his regional tour earlier this week, saying that “everyone would welcome a humanitarian pause“, as it could help get “hostages back [and] more assistance into Gaza“. NSC spokesperson John Kirby made similar comments to The National days later.

Both this, and indeed the G7’s statement as well as Mr Netanyahu’s "tactical little pauses" comment, suggest an arrangement that exceeds the threshold of a humanitarian pause, however. By viewing a pause as a transactional instrument – temporary humanitarian truce in exchange for hostage releases – rather than a humanitarian effort, it potentially sets the conditions for broader failure. Words matter, rarely more so than in finding solutions, peace and reconciliation. So too do expectations and perceptions.

Humanitarian pauses appear to offer hope in places where there is none, but how many people will be surprised if this conflict is perpetuated even when a pause is in place? Not many of us.

Published: November 09, 2023, 2:00 PM