Settlements are built on land occupied by Israel during the 1967 war
By Katya Adler
BBC News, Jerusalem
Israel's Prime Minister designate, Benjamin Netanyahu, will not openly commit to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the US insists it's the only way forward, and Hillary Clinton is visiting the region for the first time as secretary of state.
"I feel like a stranger in my own land. I can't go for a long walk. I have to sneak around. Otherwise I'm stopped by Israeli soldiers or threatened by Israeli settlers."
Raja Shehadeh is an award-winning author. A Palestinian mourning the erosion and theft, as he sees it, of his birthplace, the West Bank.
He took me to a stunning viewpoint over the rough, rolling hills outside the Palestinian town of Ramallah. A nature-lover, Mr Shehadeh pointed out the beautiful spring flowers all around us, as well as the Jewish settlements.
"Every Palestinian town here is surrounded by these settlements," he tells me. "The hills here have been chopped and flattened by them. They are an assault on one's sense of beauty and of belonging in the land."
More and more Israelis have moved to the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967 when Israel captured and occupied the territory. This is illegal under international law. Palestinians say it makes peace here impossible.
"The only consistent policy Israeli governments have had over the last 40 years is not seeking peace and building settlements in the Palestinian territories," says Mr Shehadeh.
"This is no longer occupation, this is colonisation. Israel has no right to this land. God is not in the business of real estate. If Israel wants peace, it cannot be on this land."
So what is a Jewish settlement? The name can be rather misleading. It might suggest something temporary, ad hoc maybe. But when you're in them, or look at them from neighbouring Palestinian villages, you get the impression they are being built to remain, at least for the foreseeable future.
Take Efrat, close to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem. Typically for a settlement it's made up of rows of modern-looking white houses with red roofs.
Also typically it's built on a hilltop. Settlers say that's important for security reasons. Settlements tend to be surrounded by a buffer zone - land Palestinians therefore can't farm.
Settlements are also usually serviced by roads Palestinians aren't allowed to use.
Many Jewish settlements are getting bigger. Nine thousand people live in Efrat now. The community plans, if it can, to expand to 30,000.
Already, the number of Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem - land Palestinians say is theirs and must be part of their future state - is close to half a million .
The Israeli human rights group Peace Now says Israel's government has construction plans to double settler numbers in the West Bank, an allegation the Israeli housing ministry denies.
'Not about land'
I was invited to visit a school in Efrat settlement. Pupils Ari Ehrlich, Matan Dansker and Yadin Gellman were born there.
They are a couple of years away from serving in Israel's army where they may well end up manning one of the many Israeli checkpoints controlling Palestinian movement within the West Bank.
Young settlers Matan, Ari and Gellman do not expect to have to leave Efrat
Do they accept the international community's land-for-peace proposal? Would they give up their homes for peace with the Palestinians?
"Clearly I don't want to leave my house," says Ari. "But if there was a guarantee of peace, I'd go." The other two agree.
"But it's not about land anymore," insists Matan. "Palestinians can have land for peace. We've tried it before, like when Israel left Gaza. It doesn't work. When you see what a Hamas leader wants, he's not interested in Efrat, in my school or my house. His problem is me being an Israeli. A Jew. It's not about land, it's about destroying us."
"Anyway," says Yadin, "even if we move out of the settlements. That won't be it. They'll ask for more. That won't be the end of the story."
The boys show me their school map, used in schools across Israel. The West Bank is not marked as a separate territory.
Ari, Matan and Yadin say Israel still views the land as its own. Except for the Palestinian towns there.
They tell me they all hope for peace in their lifetime. In the meantime, they'll stay put in their houses and school. Buildings they know international law deems illegal.
The proposed two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict envisages a country called Palestine existing alongside Israel - but many think the existence of Jewish settlements and their infrastructure make a viable Palestinian state impossible.
"The three areas - Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are separated," says Allegra Pacheco of the United Nations' Humanitarian Office in the Palestinian Territories.
"Israel controls East Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank. There's a wall dividing East Jerusalem from the West Bank, preventing most Palestinians from accessing the best schools, the best hospitals or going to pray in mosques or churches there.
"More and more East Jerusalem land is being set aside for Jewish settlers. Then, within the West Bank there are more than 600 physical obstacles placed by Israel blocking Palestinian movement.
"Israeli settlers occupy 60% of the land there and they are scattered all over the places. This further fragments the territory and very much undermines the economy and prospects for improvement in the Palestinian situation."
Israel says this can change with peace. Regarding settlements, checkpoints, the West Bank barrier, it insists what goes up, can come down. But Palestinians focus on what they call facts on the ground. They're not optimistic.
Clearly, settlements are not the only stumbling block to peace between Israelis and Palestinians but even the United States, Israel's greatest ally, has been critical of settlements for a long time.
In the absence of a peace deal, international agreements require Israel to freeze settlement construction.
Yet, during the Bush administration the settler population grew considerably.
Barack Obama says he wants to pursue peace here "aggressively". But his secretary of state will have to tackle the settler issue with actions, not just words, to really make a difference.