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The U.S. wants a humanitarian pause in Gaza, not a cease-fire. What's the difference?

Pro-Palestinian protesters gather in front of the White House on Saturday, calling for a cease-fire. The Biden administration is pushing Israel to consider humanitarian pauses instead.
Stefani Reynolds
AFP via Getty Images
Pro-Palestinian protesters gather in front of the White House on Saturday, calling for a cease-fire. The Biden administration is pushing Israel to consider humanitarian pauses instead.

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas enters its second month and the death toll in Gaza climbs, humanitarian groups' calls for a cease-fire are growing — though they don't appear to be moving the leaders of Israel or its key ally, the U.S.

Israel continues to strike Gaza from the air and on the ground, seeking to remove Hamas from power in response to its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, in which militants killed some 1,400 people and took another roughly 240 as hostages.

More than 10,000 people — mostly women and children — have died in Gaza in the four weeks since, Gaza's Ministry of Health reported on Monday.

That same day, the heads of 18 United Nations agencies issued a rare joint statement reiterating their calls for an immediate cease-fire, as well as the immediate and unconditional release of all civilian hostages.

"Enough is enough. This must stop now," wrote the signatories, which include the heads of the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the High Commissioner for Refugees.

Other activists and world leaders have made similar — and increasingly forceful — pleas in recent days.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C., this weekend to demand a cease-fire in one of the nation's largest pro-Palestinian protests since the conflict began. Others have taken place in New York City, Philadelphia, San Franciscoas well as cities throughout the United Kingdom, Europe and Latin America.

Pope Francis renewed his appeal for a cease-fire over the weekend, saying in a speech at the Vatican that "I implore you to stop, in the name of God." Many Arab nations also want an immediate cease-fire, which officials from Jordan and Egypt reiterated after their meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday.

In the U.S., several progressive House Democrats introduced a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire, which roughly a dozen lawmakers have signed onto since mid-October. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., became the first senator to call for one last week, emphasizing that it should only happen after all of the hostages are released.

Four of the hostages — including two Americans — have been released so far, and Hamas says dozens have died in Israeli airstrikes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected calls for a cease-fire. He reiterated in a televised address on Friday that one cannot happen without the return of the hostages.

"This should be completely removed from the lexicon," he said. "We say this to our friends and to our enemies. We will simply continue until we defeat them. We have no alternative."

The Biden administration, however, is increasingly pushing for a humanitarian pause.

The United Nations defines a humanitarian pause as a "temporary cessation of hostilities purely for humanitarian purposes ... usually for a defined period and specific geographic area where the humanitarian activities are to be carried out."

Palestinians inspect the damage in Gaza City's Shati refugee camp on Monday.
Bashar Taleb / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Palestinians inspect the damage in Gaza City's Shati refugee camp on Monday.

A cease-fire means an end to the fighting

The U.N. defines a cease-fire as "a suspension of fighting agreed upon by the parties to a conflict, typically as part of a political process ... Its aim is usually to allow parties to engage in dialogue, including the possibility of reaching a permanent political settlement."

Israel is opposed to a cease-fire because it has not accomplished its stated goal of dismantling Hamas, Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told NPR's Morning Edition, adding that Israel's government insists it is "using force in a proportionate manner, designed to only target those who are direct combatants in the fight."

But that's not what the rest of the world is seeing, Daalder says.

He says the mounting civilian deaths in Gaza are behind the growing calls for a cease-fire — as well as the Biden administration's push to tell Israel that "you need to really find a way to allow the war to be fought in a more discriminate way that does not necessarily affect all of these civilians."

The U.S. has publicly supported Israel's right to defend itself and similarly opposed a cease-fire, with Blinken saying that one would allow Hamas to "regroup and repeat what it did on October 7th."

But as the death toll rises and domestic protests grow, the Biden administration appears to be looking for a middle ground.

After meeting with Netanyahu and his war cabinet in Tel Aviv, Blinken told reporters "We provided Israel advice that only the best of friends can offer on how to minimize civilian deaths while still achieving its objectives of finding and finishing Hamas terrorists and their infrastructure of violence."

In recent days, top U.S. officials have asked the Israeli government to pause operations in certain areas of Gaza in order to facilitate the release of hostages and delivery of aid.

Just over 450 aid trucks had entered Gaza since the Rafah border crossing reopened on Oct. 21, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Sunday. It said the daily number of confirmed trucks crossing through is less than 19% what it was before the current conflict.

A humanitarian pause means a window for aid

Ambulances wait to cross the border near Rafah to treat injured people in Gaza on Monday.
Mahmoud Khaled / Getty Images
Getty Images
Ambulances wait to cross the border near Rafah to treat injured people in Gaza on Monday.

A pause would mean stopping military operations in a specific area for a specific amount of time, in contrast to a broader cease-fire.

"One is temporary and designed to achieve something that's happening on the ground," Daalder says. "The other is designed to be permanent and to end the military phase of the conflict."

President Biden himself has shown support for the idea, telling supporters during a campaign speech on Wednesday that "I think we need a pause."

He also said Netanyahu had agreed to one such pause in order to facilitate the release of the two American hostages from Gaza on Oct. 20.

Blinken pushed for more pauses during his visit to Tel Aviv late last week, but does not appear to have persuaded Netanyahu.

The Israeli prime minister said in his televised address that he had told Blinken: "We are continuing full force, and that Israel refuses a temporary cease-fire that does not include the return of hostages."

Blinken told reporters on Sunday that Israel has raised "important questions" about how humanitarian pauses would work, and the U.S. is working to answer them.

He said on Monday that the two countries are engaged "on the particular practicalities" of humanitarian pauses, and called those efforts — both to make progress on hostages and increase aid to Gaza — a work in progress.

"We've engaged the Israelis on steps that they can take to minimize civilian casualties," Blinken said. "We're working ... very aggressively on getting more humanitarian assistance into Gaza. And we have very concrete ways of doing that, and I think you'll see in the days ahead that that assistance can expand in significant ways so that more gets into people who need it and gets to the people who need it, as well as making sure that people can continue to come out of Gaza."

The White House said Biden and Netanyahu spoke on Monday morning, including about the "possibility of tactical pauses to provide civilians with opportunities to safely depart from areas of ongoing fighting, to ensure assistance is reaching civilians in need, and to enable potential hostage releases." It said the two agreed to speak again in the coming days.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.