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Cease-fire, humanitarian pause: What’s the difference in Israel-Hamas war?

With the war between Israel and Hamas intensifying and more than 10,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza, there is a growing consensus that a halt in fighting is needed to protect civilian lives — but the nature of such a move has proved contentious.

The United States is backing “humanitarian pauses” — a stance repeated by the Group of Seven major economies Wednesday — while organizations such as the United Nations have repeatedly called for a cease-fire. Israel has rejected both a cease-fire and a humanitarian pause without the return of the hostages taken by Hamas during its Oct. 7 attack — a condition Hamas has had varying responses to — though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed openness this week to what he called “tactical little pauses.”

The terms “pause” and “cease-fire” might seem similar, but they have significant differences that officials have attempted to articulate throughout the conflict. Though neither has a set definition under international law, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Oct. 24 that the distinction lies in the “duration and scope and size” of any cessation of combat.

A humanitarian pause is usually shorter and “focused on ideally getting aid into a certain area,” Grant Rumley, a former Pentagon official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview. A cease-fire is “typically a result of negotiations sponsored or facilitated by a third party,” he said, and “can last indefinitely so long as both sides of the conflict adhere to it.”

A month into devastating Gaza war, Israel’s endgame is no clearer

The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution Oct. 27 that called for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities.” There were 120 votes in favor and 14 against, including the United States, plus 45 abstentions.

When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Tel Aviv last week, he encouraged Israel to institute pauses in fighting to allow for the safe delivery of aid into Gaza and to help negotiate the release of hostages. President Biden, several members of Congress and many of the United States’ allies, including the European Union, Australia and Canada, have made similar calls for humanitarian pauses.

For some, this is not enough. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has repeatedly called for “a humanitarian cease-fire,” a plea that a coalition of U.N. agencies and NGOs reiterated Monday in a rare joint statement. When protesters took to the streets of Washington over the weekend, many carried signs emblazoned with the words “cease-fire now.” And during a Saturday meeting with Blinken, Arab leaders pressed for an immediate cease-fire.

Israel rejected United Nations Secretary General António Guterres’s calls for a cease-fire at a Security Council meeting on Oct. 24. (Video: The Washington Post)

The distinction reflects the division among those concerned about the civilian death toll in Gaza, which aid groups say is facing a humanitarian crisis.

But the terms are also “laden with symbolic meaning and significant political implications,” Chad Haines, a professor of religious studies at Arizona State University, said in an email. Where a cease-fire is usually “an attempt to create conditions to negotiate a permanent cessation of violence,” Haines said, a pause is “not a call to end the violence or even a call for ceasing the inhumane violence.”

Haines described Biden’s call for a humanitarian pause as a “semantic move” intended, in part, to “protect the interests of the Israeli government.” He contrasted that with Guterres’s calls for a cease-fire, which, Haines said, are “not based on the logic and interest of militaries but rather based on the concern for human beings.”

Israel appears to reject U.S. push for ‘pauses’ in Gaza assault

The United States’ view, Blinken said Saturday, is that “a cease-fire would simply leave Hamas in place, able to regroup and repeat what it did.”

Asked Friday at what point the United States would support a “general cease-fire,” a senior White House official appeared to suggest the word was inappropriate. “In a situation in which a terrorist group takes 200 hostages and kills 1,400 people and is hiding under tunnels, including the leaders, a cease-fire is just not really the word to use,” the official said in a news briefing, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.

Only a handful of U.S. lawmakers have publicly called for one. Robert McCaw, government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he has repeatedly asked leaders “to say one of the dirtiest words on Capitol Hill right now: ‘cease-fire.’”

Sammy Westfall, Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff, Abigail Hauslohner, Andrew Jeong and Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.

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