On a Saturday afternoon in late November, I took a walk through Ramallah, the de facto administrative capital of the West Bank. Strolling along al-Irsal street, the city's central thoroughfare, I passed by the bright colors of clothing and appliance shops while taking in the inviting smells of shawarma stands and hookah cafes. I made my way through the labyrinth of a congested outdoors fruit and vegetable market, where vendors both young and old loudly and enthusiastically peddled pomegranates, mint leaves and eggplants. I walked past the Yasser Arafat mausoleum, made of sleek white stone and glass, where a small group of tourists took photos of the burial site of the late Palestinian leader.
All in all, a sense of normalcy prevailed in the city — or at least that was my impression. The streets were calm, and there was no visible security presence in central Ramallah outside of a few Palestinian security guards chatting casually with a group of men near one of the city's heavily trafficked roundabouts. Women shopped, children ran and played, and teens walked the street glued to their cellphones.
Less than two weeks later, it was a different picture in Ramallah. Clashes had broken out between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in the city, as well as in many others throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, following U.S. President Donald Trump's Dec. 6 announcement that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there. Hundreds of people have been injured and several have been killed in clashes in the weeks since Trump's announcement.
The sudden eruption of protests and violence sparked by an outside power's decision is hardly the first such instance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The British decision to partition the land of what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories between two states set off clashes between the territory's Jewish and Arab inhabitants and eventually led to the outbreak of war in 1948. This war, which Israelis refer to as the War for Independence and the Palestinians as al-Nakba, or the catastrophe, disrupted the implementation of the partition plan and laid the groundwork for the modern conflict as it stands now.
Nor has external influence over the fate of Israelis and Palestinians been limited to distant global powers like the United States and the United Kingdom. The Ottoman Empire ruled the territory that makes up modern-day Israel, the West Bank and Gaza for more than 400 years. Before that it was the Egyptians who controlled the territory, and before them it was the Persians, and so on, all of whom held sway over this land as part of their broader Middle Eastern and Mediterranean empires. The land that now makes up Israel and the Palestinian territories hasn't been sustainably independent since the Maccabees of Hanukkah fame.
External powers have had significant influence — and, more often than not, direct control — over this territory throughout history. This should come as no surprise, given the territory's small population and the strategic piece of real estate that these inhabitants find themselves living on and fighting over. Not only do Israel and the Palestinian territories contain the iconic sites of the Bible and their associated religious significance, but their location in the heart of the Middle East and on the eastern Mediterranean guarantees that numerous powers — whether regional or global — have long had and will continue to have interests in shaping its trajectory.
Fate in the Hands of Others
As the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and accompanying protests shows once again, a decision taken by an external power — in this case one that is thousands of miles away — has a real, concrete impact on the ground in the conflict. It serves as a reminder that the fate of the Palestinians, and to a lesser but still real extent the Israelis, isn't in their own hands. Conversations with people on both sides of the conflict only reinforced this notion.
For instance, in the West Bank, I spoke with a Palestinian accountant in his early 50s who had been born and raised in Bethlehem. He told me that all of his everyday decisions — where he could go, how long it took him to get there, and what he could do once there — were under the control of the Israelis. This is largely because of "the wall," he said, referring to the separation barrier erected by Israel that has shaped traffic and living patterns throughout the West Bank. Numerous Israeli security checkpoints and settlements further constrain movement by Palestinians living in the area.
From the Israeli perspective, the barrier has served as a reinforcement mechanism to prevent the kind of attacks and suicide bombings that occurred during the second intifada of the early 2000s. But for Palestinians, the wall has complicated — to say the least — key aspects of their life. For example, the journey from Ramallah to Bethlehem, covering a distance of less than 30 kilometers (18 miles), previously took about 20 minutes by car via Jerusalem, the accountant told me. Now, he said, this journey often takes several hours, as Israeli security forces have closed to Palestinians transit through the city from one point in the West Bank to another, and Israeli security checks can delay the routes around it.
Other aspects of daily life, including the amount of water that can be consumed (rows of black plastic water containers line the roofs of apartment buildings throughout the West Bank because of the frequent shortages of water flows) and the type of food that can be produced, are also controlled or highly influenced by Israel, he told me. This, the accountant said, was an unsustainable situation, but one for which he didn't see any looming resolution. I asked him whether he supported a one-state or two-state solution, and he said, "Either one which supports equal rights and freedom of movement for the people, for all people." When I asked if this could be achievable, he said, "Maybe in 100 or 200 years … but not soon."
Shaped by External Powers
Meanwhile, in Israel, the idea of not being in control of your own fate is perhaps more subtle than in the Palestinian case, but no less real. External powers have dramatically shaped Israel's existence as a state, whether it was the destruction of the Judean kingdom by the Romans, or the rebirth of the modern Israeli state due to events in late 19th and early 20th century Europe. And while Israel clearly has the advantage when it comes to economic and military power compared to the Palestinians, this dichotomy is not the case when it comes to the country's broader neighborhood. Israel is surrounded by countries that in the best of times are neutral and more often than not hostile to the country's interests, if not its existence. This includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, all of which have at various points in time fought in military conflicts with Israel. In 1948, a combination of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan and Iraq attacked Israel simultaneously shortly after it declared independence. Military conflict broke out once again in 1967 between Israel on one hand and Jordan, Syria and Iraq on the other, and yet again in 1973 between Israel and Egypt and Syria.
Israel survived each of these conflicts — and in 1967, it considerably expanded its control over territory, including to the West Bank and Gaza. But Israel's continued survival was by no means guaranteed, and it took external support, especially from the United States, for Israel's military victories to be possible. Such conflicts, as well as the dependence on support from powerful allies like the United States whose foreign policy may one day shift away from Israel's interests, have left an indelible impression in the collective Israeli mindset that the country's strength and sheer survival cannot be taken for granted.
It's driven a security-oriented culture and mentality in Israel as a result. This was on display in Tel Aviv, where I spoke to an Israeli architect in her late 30s who was born and raised in the city. She said there was no winner in the conflict with the Palestinians, despite Israel's conventional military superiority. She had close friends who were killed in the intifada, and knew several people from her days in the army (military service is mandatory for most Israeli citizens) who served in Gaza and had post-traumatic stress disorder. "What kind of victory is that?" she asked.
Another Israeli living in Ashdod, a coastal city north of the Gaza Strip, told me that the sound of sirens as a result of periodic rocket attacks has become a part of his everyday life. I was in Ashdod three years earlier during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict and witnessed this firsthand. The process of residents shuffling into bomb shelters — which are located in most houses and apartment buildings in the country — as a result of the endless sirens was eerily commonplace, showing that conflict had become ingrained in the psyche of the locals. Of course, the same could be said for people living just to the south in Gaza, which the Palestinian accountant from Bethlehem told me was simply "one big prison under siege."
All of this goes to show that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that is dominated by constraints and immense pressures on both sides, felt in very different but very real ways. The Palestinians are endlessly searching for a state, while Israel is endlessly searching for security and strategic depth in an unfriendly region and with uncertain allies. Both are doing so in a strategic piece of territory that has a historical and religious significance that vastly outstrips its diminutive size. The conflict is ultimately about two groups of people trying to survive in a crowded and difficult region, each of them struggling in their own separate ways to do so.