The death of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat last month could profoundly alter the Palestinians' long-running conflict with Israel, which erupted into violence again four years ago.
Despite a sense that diplomatic progress may finally be possible, the two sides face fundamental obstacles to peace: their competing claims to the same stony tracts of land, the violence that has torn apart lives and families on both sides of the divide, the painful historical injustices the two peoples have suffered.
Times staff photographer Rick Loomis documented these enduring themes of the conflict while on assignment in the second half of last year.
This holy city is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
Almost nowhere else on Earth do past and present collide with the intensity seen in Jerusalem, where ancient alleyways and parchment-colored walls have borne silent witness to centuries of strife in a city held holy by three faiths. But Jerusalem is more than a shrine to religion and conflict. It is a living metropolis where the sound of sacred chants mingles with the impatient honking of car horns, where satellite dishes dot a skyline defined by soaring bell towers, delicate minarets and simple stone synagogues.
In the modern-day struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, Jerusalem is the ultimate prize: Both sides claim it as their capital. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat wanted to be buried in the city, but when Israel objected, Palestinians had to satisfy themselves with a stone-lined tomb in the ruined West Bank compound in Ramallah where Arafat spent the last years of his life. Palestinians say they hope to move the grave to Jerusalem one day.
They are demanding what Israel won't give up.
Loomis looks at a seemingly intractable point of dispute: the fate of nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees scattered in U.N.-administered camps that were meant to be temporary but have evolved into sprawling cities with a desolate air of permanence.
Refugees, many of whom looked to late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as their champion, seek not only the creation of a Palestinian state but the reclamation of homes and property inside what is now Israel. The Jewish state says that is impossible
Jews in the West Bank and Gaza Strip see the land as their biblical birthright.
The lens is turned to Jewish settlers, who have been supported by successive Israeli governments in laying claim to a "Greater Israel" stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The land where they have built communities, raised crops and reared children is claimed by Palestinians as part of their future state. Today, few people believe a peace agreement is possible unless settlers relinquish at least some of this territory.
The 225,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip make up less than 4% of Israel's Jewish population, but they have long wielded significant political clout.
The settler movement has presented fierce resistance to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to uproot the 21 settlements in Gaza plus four small ones in the West Bank. Settlers and their allies, many of whom believe the land is theirs by biblical birthright, are working to topple the Sharon government, and some extremists have threatened to kill the prime minister.
The Israeli leader once urged the settlers to seize every West Bank hilltop they could, and he envisioned the Gaza settlements as a bulwark against invasion from the south. But in a recent speech, he borrowed an admonishment from late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and pleaded with the settlers to guard against their own "messianic" tendencies.
In the shadows, Palestinian fighters are poised to do battle with Israel.
Once, they marched defiantly in the streets of 2Palestinian refugee camps and slums. Today, fighters from groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad have largely been driven underground.
They emerge from the shadows to stage suicide attacks and confront Israeli troops during major military incursions, such as the one in early October in the northern Gaza Strip. More than 115 Palestinians were killed in that operation, about half of them believed to be militants.
Over the last 20 months, Israel has assassinated the top echelon of Hamas and killed dozens of lower-level field officers. Untested Palestinian foot soldiers are also viewed as a threat. In September, Israeli forces fired on a field in Gaza City where Hamas recruits, many of them teenagers, were taking part in weapons maneuvers; at least 14 were killed. At a recent Hamas funeral in Gaza, masked mourners took the highly unusual step of refraining from firing their automatic weapons in the air. They did not want to attract the attention of nearby Israeli troops.
Suicide attacks have altered life on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
A scourge upon innocents or a brutal equalizer in an unequal war? Throughout the long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the two sides have viewed the carnage-filled landscapes wrought by suicide bombings in very different ways.
The attacks carried out by radical Palestinian groups were for a time a defining characteristic of the Palestinian uprising. More than 115 such bombings have occurred since the conflict erupted again in September 2000. But the bombings fell off sharply this year, largely because of Israel's continuing construction of a barrier in the West Bank and its army operations against Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israeli security officials say one measure of the groups' growing inability to mount attacks in Israeli cities and towns is the militants' reliance on ever younger bombers. The perpetrator in a November attack on Tel Aviv's landmark outdoor Carmel Market, which killed three Israelis, was a 16-year-old boy. Children as young as 14 have been caught trying to carry out suicide bombings.