The Israeli settlements and the Israeli settlement expansion process in the occupied Palestinian territories have been and will continue to be the most problematic aspect of the conflict and the greatest obstacle to making peace, even when the two sides are ready for that.
The settlements are built for "security" or ideological purposes. In either case, the settlements themselves are a security burden that requires either further expansions or further security measures. These, in turn, only further inflame the conflict and spark confrontations.
The best illustration is Israel’s separation wall. To protect settlements on occupied Palestinian land, Israel has built a wall that in some places veers deep into Palestinian territory. Securing this wall, in turn, requires closures of additional areas and other measures of restrictions on the Palestinian population. Israeli officials justify the building of this wall as a measure aimed at maintaining the security of Israel; in fact, it is built to secure illegally built settlements on occupied land. Had there been no settlements, that wall could have been built on international borders and would not have added more fuel to the fires of the conflict.
Since the illegal Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank including East Jerusalem in 1967, the most frequent causes of the many confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians have been clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli occupation forces during the confiscation of Palestinian land for the creation and expansion of settlements, and the continuing aggressive behavior of settlers against the local population.
Even Palestinian economic difficulties can be attributed to the expansion of these Jewish colonies. The settlements have taken good agricultural land, interrupted the movement of people and goods and the contiguity of territory, and are built over vital water reservoirs.
Israeli propaganda often tries to mix cause with effect by claiming that much of what the Israeli army does is for the protection of settlers. In fact, it is the presence of the settlers and the expansion of settlements that are the major causes of insecurity for both sides.
Needless to say, the continued construction and especially the recent arbitrary expansions of these illegal settlements are killing any Palestinian hope for a possible peace based on independence and the establishment of a viable state. This fading hope, in turn, is the cause of desperation as well as violence and confrontation.
Even during the best years of the peace process, there was a fundamental lack of trust engendered in the Palestinian population as it became clear that negotiations had no effect on the continuing expansion of settlements. The settlements are the most glaring symbol of the occupation. Their expansion constitutes a consolidation of this occupation, and Palestinians were led to believe that the peace process was about ending the occupation. Thus, one of the reasons Palestinians are unable to look optimistically at the possible Israeli evacuation of settlements in Gaza is that this unilateral Israeli plan is being accompanied by dramatic settlement expansion in more than 95 percent of the rest of the occupied territories, namely the West Bank including East Jerusalem.
Occupation and settlement expansions are incompatible with peace and instead foster enmity, hostility and hatred. Only when Israel stops at least the expansion of settlements, will Palestinians see any cause for optimism regarding possible future peaceful relations between the two sides.