Known Unknowns: or the things that you thought you knew about a ceasefire in Gaza that it turns out you did not

About the author(s):

Marika Sosnowski is an Australian-qualified lawyer, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Melbourne Law School and a Research Associate at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg. Her works sits at the intersection of socio-political-legal anthropology. Her primary research interests are in the fields of critical security studies (mainly ceasefires), local/rebel governance and legal systems (particularly issues around citizenship and belonging) with a geographical focus on Syria.

Since the obscene attack by Hamas on Israel on 7 October 2023, the Israeli Defence Force has dropped between 18 and 35 kilotonnes of ammunition on the Gaza Strip on thousands of “targets”. Among these targets are hospitals, refugee camps, schools and mosques. For context, the combined explosive power of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in WWII was 36 kilotonnes. The rising death toll coupled with pictures of the utter physical destruction of the Strip bear witness to an overwhelming display of military power.

Barely a week into the bombing campaign, talk of a ceasefire had already begun. Now, five weeks into the conflict, the UN General Assembly, virtually all Arab states, and various humanitarian organisations including Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children, have all called for a ceasefire. There have been proposals for a humanitarian pause, a humanitarian ceasefire, the establishment of a safe zone (or zones) or a humanitarian corridor. In a Whatsapp group of women working on the Middle East a colleague asked whether the resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to cessation of hostilities” is the same thing as a ceasefire? It’s a relevant and increasingly urgent question that I want to dig into deeper in this post. Without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I also want to highlight two reasons why we should think both more broadly and more narrowly about the terms a “ceasefire” could contain and what it could potentially do. This is because ceasefires (whatever nomenclature is used) are not always as unmitigatedly positive as they may at first appear.

What is a ceasefire?

Virtually as old as conflict itself, a ceasefire is an ancient way of formalising a halt to armed violence between conflict parties for a certain period of time. Historically, the terms truce and armistice were used as synonyms. Perhaps surprisingly, international humanitarian law has no provisions relating specifically to when ceasefires should be negotiated, what they need to contain or how they need to be applied. The closest are Common Articles 3 and 6 of the Geneva Conventions that enable the parties to a conflict to enter into ‘special agreements’ that bring into effect the other provisions of the conventions and articles 32–34, 36–41 of the Hague Regulations 1907 relating to archaic practices around truces and armistices (such as a “parlementaire” i.e. a person who has been authorised to communicate with the enemy, their trumpeter, bugler or drummer, flag-bearer and interpreter, all having a right to inviolability if they advance bearing a white flag). This gap means that there is also no clear agreement about what acts are legally permitted or forbidden during a ceasefire or when a ceasefire is or should be required.

At odds with the age-old nature of ceasefires, it is only in the last fifty years or so that a range of new terminology has become commonplace to describe the phenomenon of a ceasefire i.e. ‘a temporary cessation of violence that does not settle the larger conflict but is intended as a step in that direction’. These include cessation of hostilities, humanitarian pause, de-escalation, and (more creatively) days of tranquility, safe zones, safe corridors and windows of silence. Some of these agreements are designed with the goal in mind of allowing safe passage of civilians and humanitarian supplies, while others are related to immediate health and access concerns, such as immunisation campaigns and food delivery. While there has been attempts to differentiate between different terms, a primary goal of all of the above terms remains on stopping fighting for a certain period of time or, in other words, ‘a suspension of acts of violence by military and paramilitary forces’.

The irony is that despite the commonality of all the names given to this halt in violence, so far in the context of Gaza, different States have placed different emphasis or applied different meanings to different terms in an ad hoc way. For example, the U.S. has called for “humanitarian pauses” but not a “ceasefire”. The Russian Federation has demanded a “humanitarian ceasefire” but is unhappy with a “truce” or “pauses”. The term “immediate ceasefire” was taken out of a draft Brazilian Security Council resolution and replaced with “humanitarian pauses” to allow “humanitarian access” and encourage the establishment of “humanitarian corridors”. Even the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that there will be no “temporary truces” despite the fact that no one else seems to have mentioned those particular terms. Although, just a few days ago, on 7 November 2023, Netanyahu also said that he would be open to “tactical little pauses”. One real, and live, issue with all this is that individually (or collectively as States) we tend to think that we know what each of these terms means or how they differ from one another when in fact there are no commonly agreed on definitions or understandings of any of the above terms.

The devil in the detail

So, if we have no common understandings from which to work, how do parties come to any useful or enforceable agreement on a ceasefire? The answer, so far in Gaza at least, has mostly been, they don’t. Four UN Security Council resolutions for a ceasefire have failed. Qatar, Egypt and Thailand continue to work behind the scenes for a ceasefire that would include the release of the hostages taken by Hamas on 7 October. From these efforts four of the roughly 240 hostages have so far been released.

It may be banal to say that words are what we use as humans to make sense of and order the world but in this context, like many others, specifics matter. Arguably, in focusing so squarely on getting to a halt in fighting (whatever we want to call that) we lose sight of many other important factors and actions that could be taken that may or may not fall under the rubric of what is commonly referred to as a ceasefire. For example, agreement might perhaps be found if negotiators focused on more specific details or issues rather than wrangle over high-level terminology. These could include the amount of ordnance being used by Hamas and Israel on a daily level; what kind of ordnance is used; where or what is targeted; number of aid convoys allowed into Gaza, where they would come from, where they would go to and what they would be carrying; number and/or nationality of hostages to be released, and, at what regularity. I am not a negotiator and this is not an exhaustive list. What it hopes to illustrate is that a ceasefire does not have to be an all or nothing thing. There are many small actions that could be done that would immeasurably help the lives of certain people in the current context.

While the eyes of the world are rightly on the push for a capital C ceasefire by the “big players” of the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. and Russia, the approach I outlined above is arguably more in-line with what is already being done by other States like Thailand and Qatar, as well as organisations like the ICRC, in order for hostages to be released or aid to reach the Strip. In opting or focusing primarily on grand solutions we tend to forget veteran war correspondent Martha Gellhorn’s words: ‘war happens to people, one by one’. If we can come to an agreement to have one, two, maybe five hostages freed, or less bombs dropped in a day that kill innocent children, despite being far less than many of us hope for, practically speaking lives are being saved, families reunited and that is, at base level, the goal of any ceasefire. In short, efforts for a grand bargain type ceasefire should not be prioritised over more nuanced, and perhaps tangible, efforts for other types of lulls in fighting.

Unintended consequences

While thinking more broadly about what some of these detail-focused options for a ceasefire could be, it should also not be forgotten that ceasefires can have unintended consequences. Often these consequences are far from beneficial, positive or humanitarian – the kinds of things we unquestioningly expect from a ceasefire. For example, in neighbouring Syria, so-called local ceasefires and reconciliation agreements have been used during the civil war that mandated the evacuation of citizens from their homes in places like Old Homs and Daraya. Subsequently, a raft of Presidential decrees were enacted to permanently reappropriate their properties. Reconstruction and development projects such as Basila City (which ironically means “Peace City” in old Aramaic), Marouta and Homs Dream were then built on the land acquired via the ceasefire agreements. These development projects prevent the return of residents to places evacuated under ceasefire deals and formalise their permanent displacement. The written terms of the ceasefire agreements provide the conditions for, and aid in, establishing this reality.

Likewise, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, humanitarian corridors were proposed and/or implemented including to allow people from the besieged city of Mariupol to evacuate. Shortly afterward, however, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of laying landmines within the corridors to thwart civilians’ ability to flee. In another example, Russia proposed setting up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians. However, the corridors would not lead to safety but to Russia or its close ally Belarus. In the Gaza context, it would not be difficult to imagine a similar type of humanitarian corridor being proposed that would direct Palestinians towards the Sinai in Egypt effectively making them an Egyptian problem and their possibility of return uncertain. In fact, Israel has already begun to canvas support for this supposedly temporary humanitarian initiative.

The baby and the bathwater

Ceasefires are perhaps the best formalised tools humans have so far devised to halt the violence of armed conflict for a time. Therefore, I want to be clear, given the great swath of suffering being inflicted on Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military right now it is imperative that a ceasefire happens. However, what this post has attempted to highlight is that we should not be blinded by calls for a ceasefire (in whatever form they come). Rather we should be alert to the many hazards ceasefires may herald, including an all or nothing approach or providing supposed humanitarian cover for wrongful acts. When Donald Rumsfeld first talked about the “known unknowns” in 2002 (drawing from the idea of the Johari window – a four-square framework through which to question our blind spots, unconscious biases and assumptions) in relation to the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq, many academics, myself included, thought that it was pure weasel words used to distract attention away from war. Since then however, I have seen merit in having a schema for cogently and thoroughly testing the limits of what we know and what we don’t know. It is perhaps particularly useful during times of immense upheaval when our ability to think clearly may be compromised. We should apply the same logic to ceasefires.

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