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Ceasefires are Passé: A Semantic Portrayal

Semantics play their part in the Israel-Palestinian conflict

Ceasefires ain’t what they used to be. They do not offer a fairy-tale ending for those anxiously hoping for conflict resolution. Instead, we get catharsis; instead of “ceasefire”, we get a “calming down”. We do not applaud the sound of staccato ceasefires between Israel and Hamas. Instead we breathe a collective sigh of relief. If we want catharsis, it comes with a price.

On the Israeli-Gaza border the relative calm reached in the aftermath of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge mounted against Hamas in 2014 has gradually eroded. A fourth violent episode involving Hamas and Israel is looming. In the last few months the latter has deployed several instruments: Incendiary kites have torched Israeli fields, and mass violent border demonstrations have sometimes been combined with rocket attacks into southern Israel. Israel has retaliated with sniper shootings and warplane sorties over Gaza.


 Amid the acceleration and deceleration of this latest violence, a ‘Safkat al tahadiyeh’, translated from Arabic as a ‘calming down arrangement’ between Israel and Hamas is emerging, mediated by Egypt and the United Nations. Reportedly the tahadiyeh is choreographed in six sequences provided that calm is sustained: short-term ceasefire; reopening of Gaza’s border crossings and expansion of the permitted fishing zone; humanitarian relief, a resolution of the issue of missing civilians and prisoners; a reconstruction of Gaza’s infrastructure with foreign funding and talks regarding the reopening of Gaza’s seaports and airports.

Is Tahadiyeh actually a ceasefire? No. Literally, it is an arrangement to calm the situation down, ‘Regia’ in Hebrew. Tahadiyeh is an elastic, ambiguous and less formal version of a ceasefire, itself a complex temporary mechanism that primarily serves to end hostilities between belligerents engaged in armed conflicts. Tahadiyeh had no age-old tradition or legal context. In the context of modern asymmetric disputes between Muslim parties and non-Muslim states, its meaning is distilled to its purest form. Tahadiyeh is distinct from ‘Hudna’; the Islamic jurisprudence of a unilateral and periodically limited ceasefire, amid the concurrence of military confrontation.

The first time Tahadiyeh was witnessed in Israeli current affairs discourse was in 2005, when the vocabulary represented a unilateral Palestinian statement on a ‘calming down period’ in the aftermath of the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2004. While the discussion between the rival Palestinian factions attempted to agree on a year-long ‘Hudna’ (ceasefire), these discussions concluded to compromise on a Tahadiyeh, which is not institutionalised as the former. The term bounced back to be used as a device to end each of the Israeli-Hamas periods of open hostilities and violence since 2007, when the group won the election in the Palestinian territories, and gained control of the Gaza Strip from its rival, Palestinian Liberation Organisation-dominated Palestinian Authority.

This pattern articulates a change in the politics of ceasefire in the region. Yet Israeli public discourse has persistently resisted the incorporation of Tahdiyeh to its lexicon. Why? In Israel some elements of the polity regard Islamic concepts of ceasefire and de-escalation as tools to propagate armed conflict without compromise. The inability to enforce compliance from Islamist non-state actors to abide by international concepts of ceasefire and armistice which have legal validity, adds a frisson on melancholy over the trajectory of Arab-Israeli relations. There are linguistic discrepancies between the Israeli notion of ceasefire compared with ‘Tahadiyeh’ which manifest a different form in conflict resolution.

A New Lexicon?

Israel’s ceasefire contemplations are therefore divided between international humanitarian law, Islamic religious jurisprudence and Arab covenants. The former looks toward a universal legal framework which is rooted primarily in Western notions of war which Israel embraced upon its independence in 1948. These codes, developed and applied to moderate war, were gradually codified into international legal conventions. Arab and Islamic concepts, on the other hand, reflect the legacy of periodic inter-civilizational conflicts.

As a result of the fundamental change of the terminology of conflict resolution at the turn of the 21st century, the conceptual Western framework Israel uses to measure ceasefire in relation to conflict resolution may no longer be relevant. Israel is changing its discourse on ceasefire by de-facto recognising the pragmatic effects of Tahadiyeh to meet what it feels to be the demands of the times. It is mutually employed as means to test respective interests or reciprocity.

These past weeks, the concept of Tahadiyeh has been subjected to heated discussions, about its pragmatism, limitations and justification under the circumstances. The debates both in Israel as well as in Islamic Arabic discourse are evidence that as Israel and Hamas are continuously entangled in conflict, both are compelled to re-interpret Tahdiyeh, which could lead to a solidifying of the concept’s definition. The manifold benefits of using local Arab concepts, vocabulary and vernacular could help to de-escalate hostilities and mitigate humanitarian crises by calibrating expectations on both sides.

Looking ahead, we could be starting to see a fusion of international humanitarian law and Arab covenants of pacification. It is important to recognise that the etiquette of Tahadiyeh are not negotiated with the assumption that peace is the primary objective, rather that subject to tactical considerations. What makes this brand significant is its negotiated restraint and utilitarian style to advance the protagonists’ perceived short-term interests. The preference for the elastic word Tahadiyeh to the inflexible word Ceasefire is represented by the pragmatic conduct of the protagonists in indirect negotiations. It is an example of cynical symbiosis. Guy Cohen, Government Affairs, Friedrich Hippe GmbH.


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