For those of us who work on US-Middle East policy, especially those with close friends and family in the Middle East, the last three weeks have been especially harrowing. Those of us sitting in Washington cannot know what our Israeli colleagues endured on 7 October, when over 1,400 people were murdered, and in the days since as the details of those attacks continue to emerge. Nor can we scarcely imagine what our Palestinian colleagues continue to endure now under weeks of relentless bombardment by the Israeli military, which as of this writing has killed over 8,000 people, nearly a third of them children, from a community that has already endured decades of occupation and siege.
Pressure is building for an end to this killing and for a release of hostages. On 16 October, 13 members of the House, led by the representatives Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib, announced a resolution “urging the Biden administration to call for an immediate de-escalation and ceasefire in Israel and occupied Palestine, to send humanitarian aid and assistance to Gaza, and to save as many lives as possible”.
Last week a group of US senators, including Elizabeth Warren, Mazie Hirono, Ed Markey, Tina Smith, Raphael Warnock, Chris Murphy, Chris Van Hollen, Jeff Merkley, Peter Welch and Bernie Sanders, issued a joint call for a humanitarian pause, saying that “the war in Gaza has become a humanitarian crisis and has claimed the lives of innocent Palestinians … [W]e are calling for humanitarian pauses to allow full, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian assistance for civilians and the immediate, unconditional release of all remaining hostages.”
The Biden administration has called for a similar measure. Last week at the United Nations, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, for the first time said publicly that “humanitarian pauses must be considered” so that food, water, medicine and other essential humanitarian assistance can reach Gaza. A White House official explained that the administration is now backing the idea of a “pause” of indeterminate duration to allow for more desperately needed aid. Stopping Israel’s relentless bombing campaign is necessary for this purpose. Efforts must also continue to urge Hamas to cease its rocket attacks on Israel.
A ceasefire, truce or “humanitarian pause” that begins as a temporary measure, but which could be extended, is vitally necessary to prevent further loss of civilian life on a mass scale. The delivery of needed humanitarian aid, additional efforts to secure the release of hostages, the re-establishment of water supplies and electricity, and initial assessments of Gaza’s reconstruction and resilience needs would all be made possible by a break in fighting.
Such a measure could also help calm tensions in the West Bank – where Israeli settlers have accelerated their campaign of expulsion and 120 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since 7 October – and elsewhere in the region, greatly reducing the risk of further escalation, something the Biden administration clearly and rightly seeks to avoid.
While the hope is that such a pause will be extended indefinitely, it is worth noting that a ceasefire is not a peace treaty. It is an ad hoc measure under which combatants do not waive their right to resume military operations if other efforts to permanently end an armed conflict fail. But such a measure is key right now to save human lives. Advocacy efforts should focus on members of Congress who have not yet called for a pause, rather than attacking members who have, even if not in the preferred language.
The war of words being waged to create a false binary between whether Israel should be taking any military action or not – with the dividing line being support for a so-named “ceasefire” – is harmful to protecting civilian lives. Regrettably, those at both fringes seeking to define ceasefire maximally to simply mean opposition to all Israeli military action in Gaza at any time are unwitting allies against a broad majority, which spans from the global progressive movement to some in the anti-Netanyahu Israeli security establishment, who take a range of more principled and practical views.
To everyone in this wide swath of the policy spectrum, halting the fighting means stopping the body count from climbing as long as it lasts and creating a window to save tens of thousands of more lives by getting critical aid into Gaza, getting the most vulnerable out of harm’s way and trying to get hostages released.
To progressives, a humanitarian ceasefire or pause would also afford a moment that we hope can build momentum for further multilateral diplomacy that ultimately brings an end to both Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinian civilians in Gaza and Hamas’s Gaza-based offensive capability. (This week, the Center for International Policy published a set of proposals to that end.) For Israelis and their supporters who believe Hamas will ultimately have to be rooted out of Gaza militarily, a pause for civilian protection and diplomacy also will help it meet its obligation under international law to take reasonable measures to avoid civilian losses and exhaust all remedies if it does then resort to targeted force (which the current bombing campaign is clearly not) to attempt to defeat Hamas.
We can and should champion the diplomatic route – but it’s much more in line with our values and objectives to engage in that debate having first ensured to the best of our ability that civilians are not being killed, maimed and displaced. We should therefore treat as an ally anyone who has come forward to seek that reprieve and continue to apply pressure to those not yet courageous enough to support a cessation of this horror.