Europe’s failure of moral leadership

Europe’s failure of moral leadership

Israel’s demolition of Gaza will haunt Europe’s conscience for generations to come and imperil the claims of the democratic world.

Aftermath of an Israeli air strike on Rafah on Tuesday (Anas-Mohammed/

Despite mounting public and political pressure, Israel has set the holy month of Ramadan as the deadline for its offensive on Rafah in the south of the Gaza strip. But to invade the city sheltering over a million people would not only prove apocalyptic for Palestinians—it will undoubtedly haunt Europe’s conscience for generations to come.

Israel is not only massacring Palestinians in Gaza. It is breaking long-established rules of war to unravel history and permanently eviscerate the memory of Palestinians from the land itself.

Unbridled destruction

In the course of recent months, more than 650,000 homes have been destroyed and roughly 1.8 million people displaced. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, forced to rely on satellite images to monitor the unbridled destruction of historical sites, has voiced deep concern and intends to conduct a full damage assessment. But this much is clear: the culture and essence of Palestinian life will never be the same.

On October 19th, the oldest church in Gaza, Saint Porphyrius, was destroyed. This building was a living jigsaw of its ancient history, with building stones and plaques engraved with ancient Greek (including the word ‘Gaza’). The Great Omari Mosque—once a pagan temple—lies in ruin too, with only its minaret jutting out like a mutilated finger.

When Alexander the Great besieged Gaza in 332BC, he was trying to capture a culturally rich city linking Assyria with Egypt on the Silk Road. Today, libraries have been burned and more than 200 irreplaceable religious and cultural sites reduced to ruins as Israel grinds Gaza into dust.

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When Islamic State waged its war on history, identity and material heritage, an international outcry rightly ensued. Yet Europe and the United States remain eerily silent towards Israel—ignoring the never-ending nightmare for the Palestinian people and the flattening of history which great lengths were once taken to preserve.

Drawing inspiration from the Monuments Men during World War II, organisations such as the US Committee of the Blue Shield, as well as notable collaborations between archaeologists and non-governmental organisations, have painstakingly sought to preserve cultural heritage during modern armed conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Mali. Yet Israel shows no such intention. Palestinians are faced with scenes of devastation normally only found in history books.

Urgent calls

But it is not only Gaza that is losing its very soul. The European conscience will be forever scarred if steps are not taken to bring the policy of powerful governments in line with urgent calls for a ceasefire.

The fractures of this breakdown of political and moral leadership are already appearing. Protests for a ceasefire in Gaza are gaining numbers every week, enhancing the disconnect between people and their elected representatives—even among officials themselves—all of which is imperilling our democracy in this year of many elections.

In the United Kingdom, Prince William has taken the unprecedented step of publicly intervening, saying ‘too many have been killed’ and calling for the fighting to end ‘as soon as possible’. Israel branded him ’naïve’ but this is the leadership we are missing from European governments and the US.

Gulf states, long viewed as Israel’s only possible route towards normalisation in the region, hold a key to regional peace but are instead having to navigate the double standards of the international system. As the UN Relief and Works Agency collapses, Saudi Arabia, the regional power alongside a belligerent Iran, has provided more than 5,000 tons of aid and is responsible for leading under-reported behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

In Riyadh, ministers from the Palestinian Authority, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have met to discuss steps towards an ‘irreversible’ recognition of Palestinian statehood. This diplomatic drive has included meeting senior officials from the US, the European Union and the UK.

Moral arguments

But they are not alone in trying to fill the chasm of political leadership. As the conflict drags on, civil-society leaders are increasingly advancing moral arguments to end the tragedy and prevent further loss of human life and heritage.

The Pope, for example, has relentlessly called for a ceasefire, citing Israel’s ‘indiscriminate striking’ against civilians in Gaza as a potential war crime. In the US, a coalition of activists, faith leaders and artists have been marching 150 miles to Washington DC to urge Joe Biden’s administration to call for a permanent ceasefire. This ‘pilgrimage for peace’ echoes the latest polls, which suggest the majority of faith groups in America, including Jews and evangelical Christians, support a ceasefire.

The head of the Muslim World League, Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, has spent his career building bridges between Muslim and Jewish communities, making headlines in 2020 when he became the most senior Islamic figure to visit Auschwitz. Besides speaking out against an alarming piece in the Wall Street Journal which claimed Dearborn, Michigan was the ‘jihad capital’ of America, Dr Al-Issa has petitioned for the release of all hostages in Gaza. As he wrote in the Economist, he believes ‘the crisis in Gaza is not just a regional conflict; it is a battle for the hearts and minds of future generations, who will be lost to cynicism and hatred without decisive moral leadership today’.

These figures realise what political leaders have not: in this apparently zero-sum conflict we all stand to lose. Whether it be in the devastating loss of human life, the destruction of irreplaceable artefacts and historical symbols or the inevitable increase in hate and dehumanisation around the globe, the conflict has become a litmus test of the moral conscience of humanity—one that could result in human rights and democratic values being buried alongside countless Palestinians in Gaza.

Holding to account

To end this conflict, which has claimed more than 30,000 liveserased entire neighbourhoods and family bloodlines and become a graveyard for journalists, leaders of the ‘free’ world must abandon their passive stance and take a strong, morally coherent position which matches the will of the people and the historical precedents set by a hard-won world order. This means holding to account those responsible for breaking global rules and calling for a permanent ceasefire, halting weapons transfers and enforcing sanctions.

The road to healing for Palestinians, the middle east and the rest of the world will be long and hard. But this is not only an issue that will affect the security of Europe and the US or the outcome of elections. The danger is that it will signify, in an era of ‘backsliding’, that the democratic world—and the promises of freedom, equality and human rights that underpin it—is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Muddassar Ahmed is a counter-extremism expert, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He is a former independent adviser to the UK government on Muslim communities and anti-hate initiatives and a member of the board of the Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine.

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