The Israel-Hamas hostage deal is not a ceasefire

The agreement is a pause, not a ceasefire. That distinction matters — a lot.

Artillery silhouetted against the sky.

Israeli artillery train their guns toward the Gaza Strip on November 21, 2023, in southern Israel. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

For anyone concerned about the people of Israel and Gaza, the just-announced deal for a break in the fighting between Israel and Hamas should be considered good news.

Per the agreement, Hamas will release 50 women and children taken hostage during the October 7 attack on southern Israel. In exchange, Israel will commit to a four-day cessation of its offensive in Gaza during which it will allow increased flow of relief into Gaza. It will also release roughly 150 Palestinians from Israeli prisons (a group that, per Israeli insistence, includes no Palestinians convicted of murder).

[Related: The Israel-Hamas hostage deal, explained]

The deal is, in the most immediate sense, a humanitarian measure. Palestinians suffering from a brutal Israeli assault will get a reprieve from indiscriminate bombing and punishing ground warfare. International organizations will get much-needed time to improve their capacities to operate in Gaza. And Israeli hostages will be freed from the horrors of Hamas bondage, reunited with families who have missed them terribly.

But make no mistake: This deal does not alter the fundamental dynamics driving Israel to wage war in Gaza. After the horrors of October 7, Israel concluded it could no longer tolerate a Hamas-run government on its border — and plans to wage war until it believes it has sufficiently ground Hamas into dust. Neither international political pressure nor the risks of a seemingly nonexistent post-war plan have yet dissuaded Israel from pursuing that goal.

There is every likelihood that, after the days of exchanging prisoners are over, the fighting in Gaza and rocket fire into Israel will pick back up again. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said this explicitly — telling his cabinet that “we will not stop the war after the ceasefire.”

So yes, there’s no doubt that the Israel-Hamas agreement is a humanitarian boon to many suffering people in the region. But it’s important not to mistake it for a true end to the violence. Many more people, including many civilians, are still yet to die.

This deal is needed — but it’s not enough

This new agreement has been described, by Netanyahu and others, as a “ceasefire.” But in actuality, it’s something more like a “humanitarian pause” — the term that Qatar, which played a lead role brokering the deal, used in its official announcement. This may seem like a strange distinction, but actually refers to something real.

A ceasefire, per the Economist, refers to a break in the fighting designed to create room for a political process that could bring an end to the current round of hostilities. This is how previous outbreaks of intensified violence between Israel and Hamas have ended over the last 15 years.

But the current agreement is not that kind of ceasefire. It is designed purely for the amelioration of human suffering, not to enable any kind of agreement between Hamas and Israel to put an end to the killing for good. This meets the definition of a “pause”: something US President Joe Biden has been advocating for quite some time while still supporting Israel’s right to continue waging war against Hamas.

The need for a break in the fighting is dire. Over 14,000 Palestinians have died in Gaza. At least 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced out of a total population of 2.1 million. Food is in scarce supply and the health care system has essentially collapsed.

This agreement, then, should not be dismissed as meaningless. Yet at the same time, it’s important to keep some perspective: It will not amount to the end of the war, nor is it designed to.

Israel has not yet achieved its defined objective of “destroying Hamas” — a vague term that has come to mean something like the elimination of Hamas as a viable governing entity in Gaza. Unlike in previous clashes with Hamas, Israel’s leadership will not rest until they feel like they can declare mission accomplished in this war of regime change.

People outside of Israel do not fully appreciate how much of a national consensus there is, at least among Israeli Jews, on the objective of removing Hamas from power.

It’s not just something the government states explicitly, though it does and has repeatedly. It’s something that I’ve heard directly from Israelis across the political spectrum, including longtime peace activists. One November survey found that roughly 80 percent of Israelis approve of the Israel Defense Forces’s performance in Gaza; among Jews alone, that figure rises to 93 percent. As angry as Israelis are at their prime minister — and they are very, very angry — they agree on this.

The opposition to the current ceasefire-and-hostage deal, such as it exists inside Israel, is not primarily coming from peaceniks who think it stops short of a needed armistice. Instead, it’s coming from observers on the right who see it as an obstacle to victory.

A statement from the far-right Religious Zionist party, a member of the governing coalition, has warned that the deal allows Hamas “to organize for continued fighting” and thus “is bad and must not be agreed to.” Military analyst Yossi Yehoshua labeled the deal “part of [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar’s fraudulent scheme” and called on his government to “continue to press the military arm of Hamas until collapse — and only then come to a comprehensive deal.”

Clearly, these opponents did not carry the day: The deal has been approved by the cabinet, reflecting solid majority support for a pause in exchange for the release of hostages. But the fact that this is the primary line of attack speaks to how deeply October 7 wounded the Israeli psyche — and why the country is so bent on waging war until Hamas is ground into dust.

Whether this is an attainable objective is a separate question. Personally, I do not think it is — or at least, it’s not possible absent a years-long and strategically catastrophic reoccupation of the Gaza Strip. Perhaps, after weeks of fighting and mounting international pressure, Israel’s leadership and people may come around to this view.

But as of right now, Israelis are still united around the war effort. And as long as they are, this humanitarian pause will end up being just that.


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