Gaza Update: as the world debates ‘ceasefires’ and ‘pauses’, Israel silent on the ‘day after’

Gaza Update: as the world debates 'ceasefires' and 'pauses', Israel silent on the 'day after'

I spent several hours on Wednesday night wrestling over how we could best cover the raid by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital. My initial plan was to get an expert in international law to write a piece about the legality of such a raid under the various conventions that set out the rules of war.

Article 13 of protocols added to the Geneva Conventions in 1977, which deals with the “discontinuance of protection of civilian medical units”, sets out that in certain circumstances hospitals and other medical units can be considered military targets – if, for example, they are being used to shelter combatants or store weapons or are being used as a command and control centre.

But crucially, if the weapons are small arms taken from wounded soldiers and not yet removed from the hospital they don’t count. Hospitals are allowed to have armed guards or sentries and medical personnel are allowed to have small arms for their own protection and for that of their patients.

Since the raid we’ve seen claim and counter-claim. An IDF spokesman gave a tour of finds which appeared to be small numbers of guns, a backpack containing a grenade and a rifle and a laptop as well as a number of discs. Palestinian sources say these are not evidence that Hamas was using the hospital as a base. As yet there is still no evidence of tunnel entrances in the hospital grounds. But plenty of conflicting statements on all sides.

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This all makes reporting from the frontline of a conflict like this a nightmare, writes Colleen Murrell, who has worked as a reporter and producer for the BBC and ITN, among others – including a stint in Gaza – and is now a professor of journalism at Dublin City University. “Live reporting is prone to the dangers of speculation, mistakes and disinformation traps for the unwary,” she writes. “If you add in the most explosive dateline in the world, then the accusations of bias come thick and fast.”

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Gaza war: reporting from the frontline of conflict has always raised hard ethical questions

It’s also the most dangerous war to report on since the Committee to Protect Journalists began counting deaths in 1992. The CPJ reports that more than one journalist or media worker has been killed each day in Gaza since hostilities began. A week ago that was 39. That number will be higher now, sadly.

Peter Greste, a former foreign correspondent with BBC, Reuters and Al Jazeera and now a professor of journalism and communications at Macquarie University in Sydney, says the vast majority of these losses have been among Palestinian media workers.

The IDF says it does not target journalists, but Greste reports that Reporters Without Borders says at least ten have been killed while clearly covering the news. All civilian deaths are tragedies – but if journalists are targeted specifically for doing their jobs then the world will die in darkness.

Read more:
More than one journalist per day is dying in the Israel-Gaza conflict. This has to stop

Pauses and ceasefires

It should go without saying that the sooner the killing stops, the better. But there has been considerable angst over how to achieve this. Clearly, with a full-blown humanitarian disaster in Gaza, food, medicine and fuel are desperately needed for civilians trapped in the conflict.

Western governments are divided about whether to call for a ceasefire or a “humanitarian pause”. The UK’s Labour Party, for example, is bitterly divided over the issue, with 56 MPs voting against the party whip and several senior frontbenchers resigning their positions over Labour leader Keir Starmer’s decision to oppose a ceasefire.

Malak Benslama-Dabdoub, who lectures in law at Royal Holloway University of London, takes us through the legal differences between a ceasefire and a humanitarian pause.

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Israel-Hamas war: there is an important difference between a humanitarian pause and a ceasefire

For Kurt Mills, meanwhile, who is a visiting scholar in the school of international relations at the University of St Andrews, there is nothing humanitarian about a humanitarian pause, which, he writes, “frequently amounts to little more than what is known in the medical world as ‘palliation’. This is when medical care is oriented towards making the patient as ‘comfortable as possible for the time they have left”.

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There's nothing ‘humanitarian’ about a humanitarian pause in Gaza

So what would a ceasefire look like – and why is it so difficult to agree on one in Gaza? Marika Sosnowski, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Melbourne, reveals that there is actually no formal provision in international law relating specifically to when ceasefires should be negotiated, what they need to contain or how they need to be applied.

Most of the time its difficult to get all the parties involved to agree on what the terminology means. Is it a “truce”, an “armistice” or a “cessation of hostilities”? Will it involve de-escalation areas, safe zones or windows of silence (which was one name given to the 2014 ceasefire in Ukraine)? How, she asks, “if we have no common definitions as a starting point … do parties come to any useful or enforceable agreement on a ceasefire?”

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What exactly is a ceasefire, and why is it so difficult to agree on one in Gaza?

Keeping matters in proportion

In the intense and often bitter public debate surrounding the conflict in Gaza one hears a lot of frankly pointless assertions being hurled by one side of the argument at another: “Hamas started it on October 7” vies for legitimacy with “Israel started it in 1948” – and so it goes on.

But one issue which seems very pertinent right now is that of proportionality. The Hamas attacks on October 7 which prompted Israel’s ongoing response, involved the murder of around 1,200 Israeli citizens, many – if not most – of them civilians, and the kidnapping of a further 240 people.

Israel’s response has been a month of relentless bombardment of Gaza with the mission of destroying Hamas once and for all as both a military and a political force. In that month, more than 11,000 people have been killed, the vast majority of whom were civilians, while the United Nations says one child is killed every ten minutes in Gaza.

The “rule of proportionality” features heavily in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and its subsequent additional protocols. It’s a principle that seeks to prohibit an attack that may be expected to cause incidental death or injury to civilians or the destruction of civilian objects that would be excessive – or disproportionate – in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. The Allied bombing of Dresden in the second world war springs to mind. Robert Goldman, a professor of law at American University, explains how this might apply to what is happening in Gaza.

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What is the rule of proportionality, and is it being observed in the Israeli siege of Gaza?

Another all-too predictable and wrongheaded aspect of the public debate over the war has been the way many people are holding the whole of Israel responsible for the actions of its government and military, just as many others are condemning all Palestinians for the attacks of October 7.

Ilan Zvi Baron, a professor of international political theory at Durham University, writes here that this “comes down to a zero-sum debate about the righteousness of being the greater victim and dismisses the rights, pain and suffering of the other”. Too much of the discussion of this conflict, he believes, is being boiled down to an “us versus them” narrative. “There is nothing inherently wrong with holding both the Israeli government and Palestinian militants such as Hamas liable for their actions,” he concludes.

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Gaza conflict: if the cycle of violence is to end we must not prioritise one side's suffering over the other

What is Israel planning for Gaza ‘the day after’?

When US president Joe Biden visited Benjamin Netanyahu in the aftermath of October 7, he said publicly that the world felt Israel’s pain and understood its rage. He added that the US had felt the same but warned: “While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”

One of those mistakes was not planning properly for what comes after Israel’s invasion of Gaza ends – or, to use a phrase that has gained in popularity over the past month “the day after”.

Rob Geist Pinfold, a lecturer in peace and security at Durham University, says that while more extreme elements on Israel’s political right wing have envisaged clearing Gaza completely of Palestinians (“occupy, expel, settle” is their slogan) and one cabinet minister (now a former minister) even advocated the use of nuclear weapons on the Gaza Strip, it is likely that cooler heads will prevail. One must certainly hope so.

Pinfold says that Israel needs to learn from its bitter past experience that another attempt to occupy the territory is no more likely to be workable than the previous one that ended in 2005. He scours Israel’s military doctrine for clues as to what options Netanyahu – or his successors – might choose to consider.

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Israel-Hamas conflict: what Gaza might look like ‘the day after' the war

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