Unpacking the humanitarian pause

December 3, 2023

The suspension of fighting in Gaza does not signify progress towards peace

Unpacking the humanitarian pause


ollowing persistent efforts by Qatar and Egypt, a four-day ‘humanitarian’ pause was reached in Gaza between the Israeli army and Hamas troops. It was later extended for two more days. While the break from 47 days of constant bombardment, which had triggered a humanitarian crisis, was needed, the arrangement is not a ceasefire or a step towards peace. The terms of are far from what is generally understood as ceasefire arrangements.

Some of the events following the humanitarian pause illustrate this as well. On the very day that the humanitarian pause came into effect, there was heavy bombardment around hospitals in Gaza City, specifically at al-Shifa hospital that which continued into the night. This alone cast severe doubt on the efficacy of the humanitarian pause. Additionally, the Israeli army detained 260 Palestinians from across the occupied West Bank.

A ceasefire is a complete cessation of hostilities. It includes the creation of humanitarian corridors. On the other hand, a humanitarian pause is a mere break in select areas of the war zone to allow for humanitarian relief and evacuation. It does not entail end of violence and hostilities. More permanent ceasefires, linked to larger peace processes, may result from preliminary ceasefires. Sometimes, parties to a conflict view a ceasefire agreement as the first necessary step before engaging in talks to find a long-term solution.

As opposed to a ceasefire, a humanitarian pause is focused solely on humanitarian relief. It may facilitate communication between parties to the conflict.

Humanitarian pauses are used to focus on a particular area of conflict to enable a particular humanitarian action. Such pauses can give people the opportunity to escape to safety or receive necessary assistance. International law does not define the terms used here, such as humanitarian ceasefire, humanitarian pause, humanitarian truce or ceasefire. Parties to armed conflicts are not legally obligated to take such action.

The main distinction is in the reason for the suspension of military action: is it meant to facilitate a particular humanitarian endeavour, or is it a more general cessation of hostilities? Implementing humanitarian pauses can encourage adherence to duties under the law of armed conflict, commonly known as international humanitarian law. These include helping the sick and injured evacuate or delivering humanitarian aid quickly and unhindered.

During a humanitarian pause, hostilities are typically suspended for particular humanitarian reasons. Their extent is usually restricted in terms of both time and place. They stop the fighting, but it’s usually a short-lived, restricted disruption.

This is not the case with broad ceasefires that have nothing to do with particular humanitarian endeavours. They may impact the accomplishment of the hostilities’ strategic military goals. In the conflict between Israel and Hamas, some states have been reluctant to demand such a ceasefire. The pauses have no bearing on the duties and safeguards imposed by international humanitarian law. They serve only as a means of bringing them to life.

The goal of the pause determines exactly what is needed. For instance, parties must agree on which organisations are allowed to participate in pauses to allow the transit of humanitarian relief, as well as the routes and times of such pauses, what measures, if any, must be taken to guarantee that only relief items are provided, and which populations may benefit from the relief.

The agreement that brought into effect the humanitarian pause in Gaza, had various terms that contradicted one another. There was no indication that the pause might to lead to a ceasefire. The agreement called for a pause in fighting from both sides, a cessation of military actions by the occupation army in all of Gaza Strip, and a cessation of the movement of its military vehicles in the Gaza Strip. However, the troops were allowed to continue to guard people and repel aggression.

The pause did allow for hundreds of trucks carrying humanitarian relief, medical supplies and fuel into Gaza Strip. It also resulted in the release of some women and children from the occupation prisons.

In sheer violation of the very terms of this pause, it was reported that the Israel Defence Forces opened fire on Palestinians returning to Gaza City. Soon after the truce was established, both parties accused one another of breaking it. About fifteen minutes after the pause began, Israel had already accused Hamas of firing rockets into its territory. On November 24, Sky News reported that on the first day of the ceasefire, Israeli sniper fire wounded members of a group of civilians attempting to cross from the north to the south of Gaza.

The ‘humanitarian’ pause in Gaza has been anything but humane. It has not been safe for people to evacuate from the north to the south along the road that Israel had declared a “safe route.” Those who managed to travel south over the last seven weeks have described horrific scenes, saying bodies of civilians were scattered everywhere.

Humanitarian arrangements can only ensure safety if upheld by all parties. A humanitarian pause was a dire need in Gaza Strip but even with a two-day extension it might have achieved only limited purposes. It accelerated the bringing in of relief and exchange of hostages, but there is no sign of a cessation of hostilities. The future of Gazans remains uncertain until a broad ceasefire or peace treaty is agreed and takes hold.

The writer is an advocate of the high court, a founding partner at Lex Mercatoria and a visiting teacher at Bahria University’s Law Department.

Unpacking the humanitarian pause