Is there hope of a holiday pause in Gaza, or is the 'Christmas truce' a myth?

Laying down arms for religious holidays has become a romanticised notion

The 1914 Christmas Truce during the First World War influenced holiday truces in later conflicts. Getty
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The 1914 Christmas Day truce in the First World War is often used as an example of humanity prevailing in the midst of awful circumstances and as a beacon for conflict relief, however fleeting it may prove.

Multiple testimonies detail soldiers swapping souvenirs in the muddy ground between the trenches of the Western Front on December 25, 1914, having temporarily laid down their arms. They shook hands, laughed together and shared stories for a few hours before going back to their respective military lines.

Writing to his family from the Western Front on the day of the truce, British army officer Alfred Dougan Chater noted that “the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides wishing each other a happy Christmas.” He said it was “one of the most extraordinary sights that anyone has ever seen”.

In the 109 years since it happened, the truce has been mythologised and romanticised in popular culture.

The event was so “extraordinary”, as Second Lt Chater noted in his letter, that it has been left to others, especially modern observers, to impose whatever meaning they wish on what took place.

What we can’t say with any certainty is whether this was a mass demonstration against the depravity of war or an impulsive act of curiosity driven by a wish for a moment of respite in what was becoming a long war. The notion of the war being over by Christmas, a popular saying after the conflict began in 1914, had been debunked as winter set in.

Terri Blom Crocker’s 2015 book on the incident notes that “the truce resonates with us today because we have long since decided where our sympathies lie, which is with the poets who represented the soldiers in the trenches”.

Beyond the poetry and mythology, the truce was neither universal nor long-lasting.

Fighting continued in some areas of the front even on December 25, with inevitable casualties, but the spontaneous nature of the temporary ceasefire and the bond between the soldiers is what endures for many, as well as the idea that peace, however fleeting, is possible even in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Beyond the poetry and mythology, the truce was neither universal nor long-lasting

Now, compare this to the efforts this week to find some kind of short-form, end of year resolution to the conflict in Gaza.

While there is no straight line that can be drawn between the events in Europe more than a century ago and the war that began on the enclave after the Hamas October 7 attacks on Israel, the principle of seeking solutions at significant times of the year is long-held: a temporary informal ceasefire was observed in the 2014 Gaza war at the time of Eid Al Fitr. Ramadan truces and humanitarian pauses, as well as others for Eid, have been used in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

In 2023, however, it seems there is no room for spontaneous momentum towards temporary peace in Gaza.

Every word in diplomatic circles is contested, every piece of possible progress is or has been discussed seemingly to a standstill. Meanwhile, the glossary of terms over the mechanics of a not-yet-realised peace grows daily.

This cycle of violence has been punctuated by calls for humanitarian pauses, corridors and other initiatives, humanitarian ceasefires and a request for the urgent and sustainable cessation of hostilities. An initial four-day temporary truce, agreed in late November and subsequently extended to a week, brought some short-term relief and allowed aid to be transited into the enclave.

On Sunday, the foreign ministers of Germany and the UK, Annalena Baerbock and David Cameron, called for a “sustainable ceasefire leading to a sustainable peace” in a co-authored op-ed. Mr Cameron was in the region on Wednesday seeking support for this plan.

On Monday, a UN Security Council vote on a UAE draft resolution on war in the enclave was delayed after the US indicated it could not support a “cessation of hostilities”, but might back a “suspension”.

The vote was put back again on Tuesday, after US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby admitted that the “modalities of the resolution” were still being worked on.

By Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed hope that the security council could get to a “good place”, before the vote was delayed for a further day.

It was postponed again on Thursday, with a vote now expected today, but time is running out, because the UN observes a holiday on Monday for Christmas.

The nearly empty vat of hope has been all but drained away.

No wonder we cling to the sentimentality of events such as those of December 1914 as proof that anything might be possible with good faith and the right intentions.

What happened next on the Western Front is also worth considering.

There was no dividend from the short-lived peace. Wartime leadership actively worked to prevent further truces as they believed any pause in fighting could allow their enemy to restock and replenish, thereby extending the war. This logic has been used frequently over the past two months to argue against halting military operations in Gaza.

By the end of the war in 1918, more than 16 million had lost their lives. A moment of peace in 1914, gave way to years of war. That is the reality to go with the mythology.

If a temporary pause is close at hand in Gaza, it must lead quickly to broader de-escalation and the release of all hostages held in the territory.

Too many people have already lost their lives and livelihoods since the start of the war for these efforts to fail. That, too, is the reality.

Published: December 22, 2023, 5:00 AM