The UN Security Council has finally called for a ceasefire in Gaza. But will it have any effect?

Ceasefires are a uniquely complicated tool in armed conflict. This is because they exist at the intersection of war, law and politics.


  • Marika Sosnowski

    Postdoctoral research fellow, The University of Melbourne

Political scientist Cindy Wittke has suggested that attempts to define what a ceasefire is and what it entails will ultimately reveal a “lack of fit” with international law. This is because they are notoriously difficult to negotiate and enforce.

This “lack of fit” has perhaps been most obvious in the UN Security Council’s deliberations over a ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. Countless resolutions have been proposed with different wording, such as:

Finally, on Monday, after nearly six months of linguistic wrangling, the Security Council has managed to pass a resolution that demands an “immediate ceasefire”. It emphasises “the urgent need to expand the flow of humanitarian assistance” entering the Gaza Strip.

So, what will this resolution do in practical terms – and will it have any effect?

Enforcement mechanisms are limited

According to international law, a resolution of the Security Council is binding on all UN member states. This includes Israel and Palestine, which has UN observer status.

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have welcomed the ceasefire resolution.

However, Israel was furious over the US decision to abstain from the vote, in effect allowing it to pass. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office argued the wording benefits Hamas, saying it gives the group “hope that international pressure will allow them to accept a ceasefire without the release of our hostages”.

It also remains to be seen whether the Israeli government will comply with the resolution and if so, in what ways.

In reality, the resolution may make little practical difference to the lives of millions of Palestinians trapped in Gaza because the council has little way of enforcing it. Israel has already ignored the International Court of Justice’s provisional measures to “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian aid”.

While military action to force Israel to adhere to the resolution seems highly unlikely, states could take other economic and diplomatic action to try to compel Israel to comply. These could include imposing sanctions, halting weapons sales or withdrawing diplomatic missions and support.

In addition, the resolution only emphasises the flow of humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip be increased. This wording gives Israel some wiggle room to continue to deny access to aid convoys stuck at the Rafah and Kerem Shalom border crossings based on security grounds.

Even before the war began – but particularly since the Hamas attack on October 7 – Israel has been imposing obstacles on humanitarian aid entering Gaza during the inspection and distribution process. It continues to frequently, and seemingly arbitrarily, reject the entry of supplies such as anaesthetics, oxygen cylinders, ventilators, sleeping bags, dates and maternity kits.

However, the fact the US abstained undoubtedly marks a dramatic shift in its diplomatic support for its chief ally in the Middle East. The resolution sends a clear message to the Israeli government that a red line has been reached in terms of what the US is prepared to accept and support.

Where negotiations currently stand

The Security Council resolution will also likely put greater pressure on both sides to come to an agreement through the negotiations being led by Qatar and Egypt.

Hamas’ latest proposal includes four points:

  • a comprehensive ceasefire

  • withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip

  • the return of forcibly displaced Palestinians

  • the exchange of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli hostages.

According to media reports, Israel has accepted an American compromise for the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released in exchange for Israeli hostages. But media reports indicate it is currently refusing to commit to a permanent ceasefire.

If this agreement does eventually come to fruition, it will no doubt include many details about how the terms will be implemented. This was the case for the temporary truce that was negotiated between the parties in November, which included a choreographed exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The number of prisoners Hamas is currently seeking in exchange for hostages has been a source of contention.

In 2011, Israel agreed to exchange more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.

Arguably, foreseeing a similar scenario, Israel has arrested thousands of Palestinians in both Gaza and the occupied West Bank on minor offences in recent months. Hamas continues to hold around 100 hostages, the majority men and many reservists in the Israeli military.

Why ceasefires matter

International law is based on the premise that it imposes obligations on states, non-state parties and individuals that cannot be bargained away. However, as permanent members of the Security Council with veto power, the US, Russia, China, France and the UK have disproportionate power over how such laws come about or come into effect.

Nevertheless, the international community is ordered around certain social, political and legal norms. These norms come not only in the form of international law, but also diplomatic and economic relations. This is what the UN terms “friendly relations among nations”. These norms ensure, to an extent, that states comply with their obligations under international law without the need for military force.

The Security Council resolution passed Monday, with vague terms and relatively little incentive for compliance, is currently the least worst option to push the sides toward a halt to the violence and allow aid into Gaza.

Other efforts towards a potentially more meaningful and practical ceasefire should – and will – continue. If they weren’t before, all eyes should not be firmly on Gaza.

The Conversation

Marika Sosnowski does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.