Wednesday briefing: Everyone claims to back a ceasefire in Gaza. But what are they really saying?

<span>Displaced Palestinians take shelter in a camp in Rafah, which itself is under threat of a ground invasion by Israel.</span><span>Photograph: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters</span>
Displaced Palestinians take shelter in a camp in Rafah, which itself is under threat of a ground invasion by Israel.Photograph: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Good morning. The daily details of the horror being visited on civilians in Gaza can make any conversation about the language of ceasefire proposals being put forward in foreign capitals seem absurd.

A massive majority at the UN general assembly backed a ceasefire in December; so did the pope. A few days later, both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer backed a “sustainable” ceasefire. Twenty-six of 27 EU states again called for a ceasefire on Monday. Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet been persuaded by any of them.

But the calls for a ceasefire, and the subtle ways that they’ve changed over time, do tell us something about Israel’s weakening position on the international stage. This week, in the UK and at the UN, rival propositions for what a ceasefire might look like have emerged. Behind the diplomatic wrangling, and a particular crisis today for the Labour party in Britain, is a complicated story about how the violence might end, and who might be able to influence it.

The Guardian’s diplomatic editor, Patrick Wintour, has been covering these discussions. For today’s newsletter, I asked him whether any of them will make any difference. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Health | Patients whose health is failing will be granted the right to obtain an urgent second opinion about their care, as “Martha’s rule” is initially adopted in 100 English hospitals from April at the start of a national rollout. The initiative follows a campaign by Merope Mills, a senior editor at the Guardian, and her husband, Paul Laity, after their 13-year-old daughter Martha died of sepsis at King’s College hospital in London in 2021.

  2. UK news | Detectives hunting for Abdul Ezedi, the man wanted over a chemical assault that injured a vulnerable woman and her two young daughters, have recovered a body in the Thames that they believe is Ezedi, Scotland Yard has said. “We have been in contact with his family to pass on the news,” said Cmdr Jon Savell.

  3. WikiLeaks | Julian Assange faces the risk of a “flagrant denial of justice” if tried in the US, the high court has heard. Lawyers for Assange are seeking permission to appeal against the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition, and say he could face a “grossly disproportionate” sentence of up to 175 years if convicted in the US.

  4. PPE contracts | Michael Gove failed to register hospitality he enjoyed with a Conservative donor whose company he had recommended for multimillion-pound personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts during the Covid pandemic. When asked by the Guardian about not registering VIP hospitality at a football match he received from David Meller, a spokesperson for Gove apologised for the “oversight”.

  5. Pakistan | Imran Khan’s political rivals have announced details of a coalition agreement, naming Shehbaz Sharif as their joint candidate for prime minister amid continuing concerns about the legitimacy of the recent elections. Candidates aligned with Khan won the most seats in the parliamentary elections but not enough to form a government.

In depth: ‘The use of the word ceasefire in a US resolution is a shot across Israel’s bows’

The prospect of an Israeli ground operation in Rafah, where about 1.5 million Palestinians have now sought sanctuary, has made the urgency over the question of a new ceasefire greater than ever. Israel says that unless Hamas frees every hostage by the beginning of Ramadan on 10 March, it will launch its offensive; if so, there could be dire humanitarian consequences, and a danger of more violence in the West Bank and escalation across the Middle East.

Israel and Hamas have been participating in talks in Cairo brokered by the US, Egypt and Qatar. And while the Qatari prime minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said that recent days “were not really very promising”, discussions are still continuing, Patrick Wintour said: “The focus at the moment is on the number of Palestinian prisoners who would be released in exchange for each hostage. But the pressure is certainly growing.” Two resolutions at the UN and three motions and amendments in the UK parliament this week help make sense of the nature, and limits, of that pressure.


The Algerian resolution | ‘Immediate humanitarian ceasefire’

Algeria, the only Arab state currently on the UN security council, brought a resolution forward calling for a ceasefire to begin immediately – and endorsing the provisional orders issued by the international court of justice obliging Israel to take action to prevent genocide.

13 security council members supported the resolution – but the UK abstained, and the US used its veto. Washington claimed that the Algerian text risked disrupting negotiations aimed at agreeing a hostage release deal in Cairo – although, as Patrick pointed out: “The Arab Group [including Egypt and Qatar] at the UN has made it very clear that they don’t agree with that.” Others suggest that the US, although now more distant from Israel, is simply not willing to back a resolution demanding it agree to an immediate ceasefire.

“The Algerians did initially hope that they could win US support for this,” he said. “They were willing to make changes to try to accommodate the Americans. But at the weekend they decided they weren’t going to get that support, so they went ahead without them.”


The US resolution | ‘A temporary ceasefire’ beginning ‘as soon as practicable’

If the inevitability of the veto might make Algeria’s resolution appear pointless, the fruits of its efforts are not in the vote itself, but in another resolution which will likely be voted on later this week – brought forward by the US in response.

Washington has now used its security council veto three times to protect Israel, Patrick noted: “They needed to show that they have some sort of solution to the impasse, not simply putting their hands up and saying ‘No’.”

The language is sharp on the prospect of an attack in Rafah, which is said to hold “serious implications for regional peace and security”. The use of the word “ceasefire” in a US resolution for the first time also feels significant, Patrick added: “It’s a shot across Israel’s bows. They’re saying, you mustn’t start a ground offensive, and you must start to let aid in more substantially.”

At the same time, he noted, “it’s important not to be bamboozled by the use of that word”. Probably more important is the phrase “as soon as practicable” – which would appear to give Israel total latitude over timing and terms. “It isn’t a demand for a ceasefire now, it’s a proposal for a ceasefire in the future,” Patrick said. “So it does put some sort of pressure on Netanyahu, but a lot less than, for example, stopping sending arms would do.”


The SNP motion | ‘An immediate ceasefire’

Opposition day motions in the UK House of Commons are non-binding, and obviously far less consequential than security council resolutions. But they do suggest that the centre of gravity on the issue in UK politics might be shifting – a little.

The Scottish National party put forward a motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in November; their new motion today is substantively very similar. Although it calls for the release of all hostages taken by Hamas, it does not say that should be a prerequisite: “It calls for an immediate ceasefire without saying that there are any conditions attached,” Patrick said.

Labour has been worried that a number of its MPs would break ranks to support the SNP motion, not least because it is substantively so close to what many of them have been saying already. That is part of why it finally came up with its own amendment yesterday.


The Labour amendment | ‘An immediate stop to the fighting and a ceasefire that lasts and is observed by all sides’

“I don’t think they would have tabled this now but for the SNP putting its own motion forward,” Patrick said. “They can point to external events, like the level of bombardment in Gaza – but ultimately this is the result of knowing that they were facing another very sizeable rebellion.”

For more detail on the Labour text, see this analysis from Kiran Stacey. “The amendment is very long, but it does show that they’ve moved – for instance, it says: ‘Israelis have the right to the assurance that the horror of 7 October cannot happen again.’ Previously, they’ve said that Hamas can’t be left in a military position to mount such a strike again – so it seems to back away from that idea.”

It is also the first time Labour has called for an “immediate” ceasefire. Nonetheless, it is much less straightforward than the SNP text: the left-wing campaign group Momentum says that “by making its call for a ceasefire so conditional and caveated, the Labour leadership is giving cover for Israel’s brutal war to continue”.

Labour’s slowness to respond to growing public pressure, particularly among its own voters, on Gaza is because “they’re trying to stay as close to the UK government position as possible, and to the US”, Patrick said. “They would view it as politically risky to be too far from either.”

But Labour’s manoeuvres have not headed off the risk of rebellion. While officials believed yesterday that they had persuaded potential rebels to support their motion over the SNP’s, the government later published its own amendment – and it is not yet clear whether that text or Labour’s will be put to a vote today. If Labour’s amendment is not on the table, dozens of MPs could yet rebel and back the SNP.


The UK government amendment | ‘Negotiations to agree a … pause’

For a long time, the British government (and Labour) position appeared defined by the term “sustainable ceasefire”. “That became a code, really, for saying that there’s no need for Israel to commit to anything until Hamas was obliterated,” Patrick said. “You hear that much less now. Foreign Office officials now say that the idea Hamas can be militarily destroyed is for the birds.”

Nonetheless, the government repeats that language in its proposed amendment to the SNP motion. It endorses only “negotiations to agree an immediate humanitarian pause” and then “moves towards a permanent sustainable ceasefire” – and says that getting there will require the release of all hostages, and “Hamas to be unable to launch further attacks and no longer in charge in Gaza”. That ultimately still accepts that a decision about timing is in Israel’s power – which is why so many Labour MPs will struggle to back it.

Do all of these triangulations, whether at the UN or in Westminster, really matter? “I doubt if you’re in Gaza you’re waiting with bated breath to hear what the Labour or SNP motions say,” Patrick said. “And even though Netanyahu’s not popular, the Israel public still doesn’t support a ceasefire. But diplomatic movements like these have brought accumulating pressure to bear on Israel, and placed limits on where they can go.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • Members of Generation Z are allegedly going to bed at 9pm: Tim Dowling (above), who is a little older, spent a week trying it for himself. “I sleep fitfully and, after a certain point, not at all,” he grumbles. “My biological clock has blown its mainspring.” Archie

  • In 1974, a group of young families established the Old Hall community in an 18th-century manor house, running an ad in the Guardian seeking other “middle-class socialists” to join them. Emine Saner visited the commune to see how the project was fairing all these years later and the legacy it has created. Nimo

  • I absolutely loved Fergal Kinney’s headlong dive into the lore of Sex Lives of the Potato Men, a movie so bad that it arguably broke British cinema, and quite a few careers. Especially good are an extract from Peter Bradshaw’s brutal review, and the surprising turn to experimental theatre at the end. Archie

  • Gaby Hinsliff reflects on Breathtaking, a Covid drama written by a doctor about her experiences in hospital wards at the height of the pandemic, and asks whether it will shift public opinion on the forthcoming junior doctors’ strikes. Nimo

  • A gambling addiction treatment centre run by the charity Gordon Moody in Wolverhampton is the only one in the UK catering specifically to women. Jessica Murray reports on the life-changing benefits for those who use the services. Nimo


Football | Erling Haaland (above) netted Manchester City’s only goal in a 1-0 victory over Brentford that lifted them into second place in the Premier League table, just one point behind leaders Liverpool. In the Champions League, Luuk de Jong rescued a PSV draw 1-1 against Borussia Dortmund, while a late goal from substitute Marko Arnautovic gave Inter Milan a 1-0 home victory against Atlético Madrid.

Tennis | Andy Murray took his first step out of the worst slump of his career as he outplayed France’s Alexandre Müller for much of their battle before holding his nerve at the close to reach the second round of the Qatar Open with a confidence-boosting 6-1, 7-6 (5) victory. Murray entered the court in Doha on a six-match losing streak.

Athletics | Radical proposals that could see foul jumps eliminated from the long jump have been criticised as an “April Fools’ joke” by four-time Olympic ­champion Carl Lewis. With around a third of all jumps disqualified at last year’s world championships, World Athletics is to trial a new “take-off zone” instead of the usual fixed wooden board.

The front pages

“Labour leader faces threat of revolt over Gaza despite call for ceasefire” says our Guardian print edition splash this morning. “William: too many have died in Gaza conflict” – that’s the Daily Mail, while the Telegraph has “William: fighting in Gaza must be brought to an end”. “Prince issues Gaza plea for permanent peace” is how the Times reports it. “‘Cam’s govt knew’” – that’s David Cameron’s government and the wrongful Post Office prosecutions, in the Metro. “Barclays to return £10bn to investors in push for new revenues and balance” is the lead in the Financial Times. “PM: completely ridiculous for illegal migrants to jump the queue” reports the Daily Express. “Putin’s Brit targets” – the Daily Mirror touts as an exclusive its page one story about claims the Russian ruler is putting together a hitlist.

Today in Focus

Why the NHS needs Martha’s rule

Following a campaign by her family in memory of Martha Mills, the NHS is introducing Martha’s rule giving hospital patients in England access to a rapid review from a separate medical team if they are concerned with the care they are receiving

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

For decades the role of Black Americans in space exploration was diminished and ignored. A new National Geographic documentary seeks to redress this erasure by chronicling the stories of African American pioneers in engineering, science and aviation, who battled violent systemic racism in society while trying to climb the ranks of an industry that was hell bent on keeping them out.

Ed Dwight, a pilot who very nearly became the first Black American in space, is featured as a “golden thread” in The Space Race. Dwight, who grew up on a farm in the 1930s, knew he wanted to fly and, against the odds, went on to have a successful career in the US air force. With President John F Kennedy’s recommendation, he was invited to train to be an astronaut at Chuck Yeager’s test pilot programme at an air force base in California. Kennedy called Dwight’s parents to congratulate them and he featured on the covers of Black publications such as Jet. Though Dwight (pictured above in 1954) was not ultimately allowed to go into space, he was considered a hero by many. After retiring, Dwight became a sculptor. His contributions to space exploration were eventually recognised when Nasa named an asteroid after him, describing him as a “space pioneer” who paved the way for Black astronauts that followed.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

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