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An Israel-Hamas ceasefire would be unworkable on both sides


4 min read

Ceasefire agreements are never easy to negotiate. Belligerents need to reach agreement on complex questions: modalities for suspending hostilities; what would constitute a violation of the ceasefire; and other arrangements, for example on humanitarian assistance or exchange of prisoners.

Some of those calling for a ceasefire may be oblivious to these difficulties, others seem more disingenuous than naive. Placards and chants on the streets of London last Saturday were directed at Hamas; but no calls for Hamas to cease hostilities and return the hostages were heard. Those who ask only Israel to stop must understand that it will be inferred they are happy for Hamas to continue. 

With the one-sided nature of these calls, the blame for rejecting the ceasefire tends to fall on Israel. Yet, Hamas has given no indication that it is interested in ceasing hostilities against Israel. On the contrary, the Hamas leadership keeps generating evidence of what the traditional law of nations calls animus belligerendi (the intention to wage war), as well as further evidence of its intent to eradicate Israel and exterminate Israelis – or as they often simply put it, Jews. Only recently, Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas leader, said the 7 October attack was “just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth”, before repeating that Israel must be annihilated.

Israel’s resort to force in self-defence is still necessary and justified

I am always surprised at how little Hamas’ official statements feature in the analyses of commentators, including academics and lawyers. I don’t know if it is the influence of postmodernism and other similar academic fads which are all so obsessed with indeterminacy that even the plainest words only mean whatever the interpreter wants them to mean. It was, after all, one of postmodernism’s founders, Michel Foucault, who, in the 1970s, paying no attention to what he was hearing, announced that Ayatollah Khomeini would mark a new dawn for progressive politics, liberating minorities and removing inequality.

But what Hamas says so clearly matters because, together with its continuing attacks, it confirms that Israel’s resort to force in self-defence is still necessary and justified.

Unlike the UN General Assembly, the Security Council resolution recently adopted, with the abstention of the United Kingdom, did not call for a permanent ceasefire but for “urgent and extended” humanitarian pauses, as well as the immediate and unconditional release of the hostages by Hamas. 

If Hamas agrees to release hostages, a ceasefire might became a realistic prospect. But, even then, other difficult questions will need addressing. 

A thorny issue in ceasefires is agreeing what happens on the ground once the guns fall silent. Would the ceasefire line split Gaza in two, with Israeli troops in the north and Hamas in the south? 

For Hamas, any such outcome would be an admission of defeat – they would never accept it. For Israel, take away any prospect of a sustainable security arrangement and it would mean accepting a loss of strategic initiative in exchange for more uncertainty about its future security.

Some of those who allege they want a ceasefire say that Israel would have to withdraw all its troops from Gaza; others go further and suggest that Israel should also end the blockade forthwith (Egypt’s role in the blockade is typically ignored). 

But why would Israel agree to this? So far, Israel seems to have made more progress and sustained fewer casualties than expected, and Hamas has put up less resistance than feared. No one can seriously believe that pulling out and letting Hamas back in would now make Israel safer. 

The quickest way to bring the suffering of civilians to an end would be for Hamas to do what past belligerents stuck in a similarly hopeless position have done: surrender or negotiate an exit for themselves. In exchange, they could demand that the Palestinian Authority be put in charge. The fact that Hamas is very unlikely to agree is not a reason for not calling on them to do the right thing. 


Lord Verdirame, non-affiliated peer, barrister and professor of international law and war studies at King’s College London 

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