Ceasefire? Obstacles and Opportunities

Image by Alice Donovan Rouse.

Appeals for a cease fire in Israel’s war with Hamas are growing louder. Along with many governments and international and nongovernmental organizations, the UN General Assembly, by a 120-14 vote (with 45 abstentions), has called for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities.”

So far that call has only yielded an Israeli decision on a daily four-hour humanitarian pause for north Gaza. I have seen very little detailed discussion of how a lengthy cease-fire might be achieved. So here are my thoughts on the complications of implementing a cease-fire as well as the opportunities it might create.

Conditions for an Effective Cease-fire

Those who want a cease-fire now are motivated by a desire to stop the killing, at least for the time agreed upon by the combatants. (I’m excluding discussion of a unilateral cease-fire, which neither side in this war is ever likely to support.) For a cease-fire to be effective, however, requires a number of agreements beyond initial acceptance.

First, the warring parties need to agree on supervision of the cease-fire by a credible government or international organization such as the UN so that lines of control are maintained, violations are reported, and communications between adversaries can be facilitated.

Second, each side needs incentives to agree to a cease-fire, since each will not want to appear weak and will argue that a cease-fire mainly benefits the other side.

Third, a cease-fire, unlike a pause, should make provision for discussion of ways to prevent the fighting from continuing. That might mean negotiations, through a mediator, of the hostage situation, or extension of the cease-fire timeline.

Fourth, adversaries have to agree to steps to protect civilian populations—unhindered aid deliveries, for instance, and freedom of movement out of the war zone.

The Obstacles

These conditions look very hard to meet in present circumstances. Israel is determined to decapitate the Hamas leadership so that the October 7 atrocities never happen again.

A cease-fire would bring its military campaign to a halt just as it is entering a new phase of rooting out Hamas fighters and destroying its infrastructure. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is tying a cease-fire to release of all the hostages, which might be considered a non-starter but could be viewed by Hamas as an incentive to bargain. (Various sources report that negotiations on a limited cease-fire and hostage release have taken place.)

Giving up hostages might appeal to Hamas if it gets something tangible in return beyond the opportunity to recuperate, such as Israel’s release of some 4,500 Palestinians in its prisons.

On the other hand, Hamas might see a cease-fire as enabling Israel to rehabilitate its international image, which has been badly hurt by its bombing campaign. Better for Hamas to maintain what it may see as the high ground in international support for its “resistance” to Israel.

The head of Hamas, interviewed in Lebanon, promised that October 7 was “just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth.” He evidently thinks atrocities against Israelis are popular in the Arab world.

Technical conditions for an effective cease-fire may ultimately stand in the way of being adopted. Can both Israel and Hamas agree on how the cease-fire will be supervised, and by whom? Can they agree on how violations will be handled? Can they even agree on how long a cease-fire should last? Are the different components of the Israeli government and Hamas likely to come together on the terms of a cease-fire?

How It Might Happen

In short, a cease-fire is far easier to call for than to implement. Above all, it takes a change of mindset in the warring parties’ leaderships and the sustained cooperation of outside parties.

Both sides need finally to conclude either that the benefits of a cease-fire outweigh the benefits of war, or that the costs of war outweigh the costs of a cease-fire.

For example, the Israeli government might give priority to getting the hostages back in response to pressure from the families. That would be both a benefit and a reduction of costs.

For Hamas, giving up the hostages might relieve it of an “asset” that has declining value compared with continued battlefield losses. Such an agreement, or even a gesture in that direction, might jumpstart negotiations for a lengthy cease-fire that stops attacks on civilians.

Agreement on a cease-fire has one often-overlooked downside: failure. Should many violations occur that lead one or both sides to lose trust in the process, the war is likely to resume with even greater intensity than before.

Beyond that, there will be little hope of seeking a cease-fire again, or even a pause, or for that matter an agreement of any kind. So those who arrange a cease-fire need to get it right the first time. Otherwise, talk about a peace settlement or Gaza’s governance future is not just premature, it is hopeless.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.