Elements of an effective, UN-supervised ceasefire in Gaza

Helena Cobban
6 min readNov 17, 2023

There is a broad and growing global campaign for a ceasefire in Gaza. (U.S. Pres. Biden has countered it by calling for one or more much briefer “pauses” to allow for humanitarian operations. But still the pro-ceasefire campaign continues to grow.) The Israeli government and military and their supporters worldwide have argued very strongly against a ceasefire, saying it would “reward Hamas”, or would be “a surrender to Hamas.”

Many supporters of Israel also use arguments like, “How can we have trust in a ceasefire? After what Hamas did October 7, how can we ever trust them to abide by a ceasefire?” This argument, unlike the two recited above, is worth examining. Its proponents usually refer to the series of ceasefires that Israeli governments concluded with Hamas (through third parties) that brought to an end the previous rounds of fighting between the two parties — for example, in 2009, in 2014, and 2021. One first observation is, of course, that each of those ceasefires did lead to a halt in the active fighting for a number of years. So they were not worthless. However, none of them led to any indication that the suffocating military occupation that Israel has maintained over Gaza since 1967 was on its way to coming to an end. Hence, the tight, concentration-camp-like pressure cooker of Gaza’s 2.3. million rights-deprived people was just put back on to the stove to boil.

There is thus much merit to the argument many pro-Israeli people make, that “We can’t just have the kind of a ceasefire that we had before, that led to a restoration of the status quo ante.” For my part, I would also be quite opposed to a return to the SQA — and I see no chance that this would even be possible. At this point, the people of Gaza and the people of Israel have both been so deeply wounded and so deeply traumatized that there is very little reason to think that they can or should trust any agreement that their respective leaders might conclude with each other.

Additionally, in Israel’s case, I think the country’s people and most of the different strands of their national leadership have been so deeply traumatized that they have become almost literally deranged. I mean, what kind of a political leadership launches a massive military operation, as they did, without having any coherent political end-state in sight? (Clausewitz 101, people.)

I’ll leave the matter of the Israeli leadership’s derangement to one side for now. What is important to stress, at the diplomatic level, is that right now there is very little possibility of a return to the status quo ante. (From the Palestinian perspective, how can the 2.3 million Palestinians of Gaza, roughly half of whom have been uprooted from their homes; whose major city — Gaza City — has been bombed into the WW-II status of a Dresden or Stalingrad; who have been cut off from the most basic necessities of life like food, water, power, and medical care; who have lost so many thousands dead and injured; and who are now facing winter in a ghastly mess of unsanitary tents and overcrowded temporary shelters… What could a return to the status quo ante even look like for them at this point?)

So if there is no return to SQA, what are the alternatives? Basically, there are two main directions being mooted. There are those proposed by people and movements who are powerful in today’s Israeli government, who argue for a longterm Israeli military presence in substantial parts of the Strip and quite possibly also for a rebuilding there of the (by the way, still quite illegal) Israeli colonial settlements that existed there prior to 2005. And then, there are those that argue instead that the scale of the death and destruction that Israel has visited on Gaza in recent weeks means that the stranglehold that Israel has maintained over the Strip since 1967 now speedily needs to end.

To his credit, Pres. Biden has stated his clear opposition to the plans mooted by the Netanyahu government for a longterm Israeli “security presence” in Gaza. But neither Biden nor anyone in his administration has spelled out the kind of political end-game they want to see there. Perhaps they lazily imagine that some form of return to the SQA is possible?

I also note that I’ve seen worryingly few discussions anywhere else in the international community of what a post-ceasefire situation in Gaza might or should look like.

In the writing that I have done over recent weeks (e.g. here and here) I have proposed that the U.N. Security Council should now take explicit charge of the whole, extremely volatile Arab-Israeli dossier in international affairs, and that the UNSC should take these immediate steps regarding Gaza:

  1. It should demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza that is connected to broader plans for both a speedy disengagement of forces in Gaza and the convening of a broad, effective, rules-based and goal-oriented Arab-Israeli peace conference;
  2. It should explicitly take charge of the monitoring of the ceasefire and subsequent disengagement agreement(s) primarily through ramping up the existing U.N. Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), that has worked continuously in the region since 1949; and
  3. In light of the extreme dimensions of the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, the U.N. should lead a broad global effort to provide relief and rehabilitation for Gaza’s people in a way that is not subject to any impediments posed by Israel’s government but that uses access routes not subject to Israeli control (that is, the routes traversing Egypt and Gaza’s long Mediterranean coastline,) and that the U.N. declare that Israel’s occupation of Gaza is thereby ended.

Here are a couple of quick additional notes about what would happen during the ceasefire and the subsequent disengagement of forces:

At the time of the ceasefire, the UNSC would demand that both parties immediately end their hostile acts against the other side and would mobilize/dispatch a ceasefire-monitoring mechanism based on UNTSO. The monitoring mechanism would likely include both the physical deployment of personnel and monitoring equipment and the use of more remote (satellite-based) etc monitoring equipment. All of it under the control of a unified UNTSO command.

The ceasefire would be essentially a ceasefire-in-place, though where the two hostile forces are too closely entangled with each other in a precarious way, the UNTSO monitors could negotiate a small local disengagement.

As soon as the ceasefire goes into operation, the UN relief effort for Gaza could start deploying, both through Egypt and via the sea. Participants in this effort would not be armed. But in order to assure its safe deployment, the UNSC would require Israel to remove all its naval forces from Gaza’s territorial waters and to end the controls it has exercised over Egypt’s crossing-point into Gaza, at Rafah. Regarding Gaza’s sea lines of communication, the UNTSO ceasefire monitoring force should exercise control over all ports and points of embarkment along Gaza’s coast and may also need a naval component to monitor Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza/Palestinian territorial waters. Regarding the Rafah crossing, Egypt would exercise full control of its side of the border.

Then, when the later disengagement of forces agreement goes into effect, the Israelis would withdraw all their ground forces back to the south/east of the Armistice Line of 1949, and the fighting forces of Hamas and allied organizations would all verifiably exit Gaza — probably by sea, to Algeria or elsewhere. By this time, perhaps four weeks after the ceasefire-in-place, the UNTSO monitoring force should have a robust capacity to monitor both these withdrawals.

There could certainly be, for the Palestinian side, disquieting echoes of what happened in Lebanon in 1982, when after a US-negotiated and US-guaranteed ceasefire the PLO withdrew all its forces by sea out of Beirut, based on assurances from Pres. Reagan for the wellbeing of Palestinian civilians who remained in Beirut and the rest of Lebanon… and that withdrawal of forces was followed within less than a month by the terrible massacres at Sabra and DShatila refugee camps. This time, however, the two twinned withdrawals would be guaranteed by the UN, not the US. And they would be explicitly linked to (a) the ending of Israel’s occupation of Gaza and (b) the UN’s convening of a high-level conference dedicated to ending Israel’s occupations of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and of Golan, and thereby the final ending of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Originally published at https://globalities.org on November 17, 2023.

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Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, w/ some focus on West Asia. Pres., Just World Educational. Writes at Globalities.org.