The Israeli disengagement from Gaza and some areas of the northern West Bank, involving as it does the evacuation of a few settlements, has brought back to the forefront the role Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory play in the conflict in general. Indeed, the fact that an Israeli withdrawal from part of Palestinian territory manifested itself as an evacuation of settlements confirms the common understanding among Palestinians that settlements are the occupation.
Since the beginning of the occupation in 1967 and regardless of the different pretexts that were proffered, the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza were used chiefly to consolidate that occupation and if possible make it permanent. One can discern two main phases of that settlement policy. The first was based on the Israeli Labor vision of the future of the territories that foresaw some kind of territorial division. Thus the location and expansion of settlements was concentrated in areas that successive Labor governments planned to keep as an extension and part of Israel, including notably Jerusalem and environs.
The second phase started when the Israeli Likud party began imposing its newfound influence. That phase marked a growing arbitrariness in the Israeli settlement policy, reflecting the fact that the Likud was not interested in a solution based on territorial compromise. Settlements were now built functionally, that is, with the notion that Israel would maintain varying degrees of control over all the occupied territories.
That approach, however, eventually brought the Likud strategy up against the so-called "demographic factor": maintaining Israeli control over all the territories left Israel with the problem of having to rule too many Palestinians. For obvious reasons, the more densely populated the area, the greater the security problem for Israel. That was especially true in Gaza. Thus, current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came to introduce modifications to the Likud vision, notably by taking the Gaza Strip, the most densely populated Palestinian area under Israeli occupation, out of the equation. In the West Bank, meanwhile, rather than trying to impose direct control over all the territory, the Israeli government is pursuing a policy of control by segregation by building a wall to surround and isolate populated Palestinian areas and still maintain around half the West Bank for the future expansion of illegal settlements.
This strategy achieves more than one aim. The first is to prevent the possibility of one contiguous Palestinian state emerging, because Palestinians will end up in at least two closed and separate areas: the West Bank inside the wall and the Gaza Strip. Second, preventing the creation of an independent Palestinian state allows Israel to maintain some kind of control over Gaza by keeping control of Gaza’s borders and the borders of the West Bank inside the wall. The third objective is the de facto annexation of roughly half of the West Bank outside the wall.
Right from the beginning, the Israeli settlement policy has been an important tool to manipulate the situation in the Palestinian territories and to achieve different Israeli strategies. The policy is notably about consolidating the occupation, but many other aims were achieved, including asserting control over water resources and surrounding populated Palestinian areas to prevent them expanding and becoming contiguous. In other words, Israel’s settlement policy is the manifest expression of the occupation and consequently the main obstacle to any peaceful settlement. Ongoing settlement expansion will be responsible, if continued, for preventing the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. Such a state, in turn, is the sine qua non for peace.