HEBRON (Israeli-occupied West Bank)-"The settlements" as as they are called-Israeil's colonization of the territories it captured in the 1967 war-have emerged as a major issue in the Middle East debate and there is no issue upon which Israel stands so utterly alone.

In the recent U.N. General Assembly vote condemning the settlements as illegal and as an obstacle to peace, no country voted with Israel and many traditional Western friends voted against.

The United States and a pathetic handful of other countries abstained in embarrassed silence, but the United States is on record as having repeatedly condemned the settlements.

Deputy prime Minister Yigael Yadin has discovered that even Israel's closest supporters in the United States find the settlements policy "hard to swallow" and in the Arab world it is assumed that the policy is but a prelude to annexation.

In all, there are no more than 79 Israeli settlements in the occupied territories with a population of less than 9,000 among a total Arab population of 1.5 million. Yet, for the Arabs, especially those living in the occupied territories, each new settlement is another nail in the coffin of their hopes for independence and an end to the Israeli occupation.

Very few Arabs have been displaced to make room for these new settlements and most were established on empty or public lands. "Why shouldn't Jews and Arabs live together?" Moshe Dayan asks.

The Arabs fear that each new Israeli settlement is likely to create what Isrealis call "new realities" and it is not in the nature of the jewish state to give up territory on which Jews are settled. The Arabs fear that the answer to Dayan's question is that Jews and Arabs can live together in the occupied territories only if the Israelis are permanently in charge.

As Terrence Smith, a journalist with long experience in Israel once wrote, you have only to connect the dots represented by each Israeli settlement on the map of the Middle East and, as in the childrens' game, the borders of what Israel intends to keep emerge.

Almost all the present settlements were planned an established by the previous Labor government, but there is an important philosophical difference between the previous government's settlements policy and that of the government of Menahem Begin.

The previous government's policy was to established colonies along defensive lines on the Golan Heights, in Gaza, in the Jordan River valley, in the Sinai and around Jerusalem. With a few notable exceptions, however, it was opposed to colonizing the heartland of the West Bank's Arab population, which is strung out along the ridgeline of the Judean and Samarian highland.

The previous government had an idea that one day these population centers might be given back to the Arabs in exchange for a peace settlement. The plan was called the "Allon plan" after the Labor government's foreign minister, Yigal Allon.

It was never official adopted to the Israeli government or group show any interest in a plan that meant less than total withdrawal to 1967 lines. Nevertheless, the Labor government's expressed willingness to make territorial concessions on the West Bank held out some hope of compromise.

The present government, which came to power last spring, is totally opposed to making terrotorial concessions on the West Bank and in Gaza-the historic land of Israel which the ruling Likud Party holds to be God's promise to the Jews. Moreover, the Likud Party platform states that the Likud is in favor of colonizing any part of the West Bank where Jews want to live.

The Israeli government says its own claim to the West Bank and Gaza is as good as anybody's since the Balfour Declaration promised a jewish Homeland on the soil of what was once British Palestine. They say that when the British left their mandate in Palestine, the Jordanians illegally annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the Israelis back their argument by pointing out that only two countries in the world. Britain and Pakistan, ever recognized Jordan's claim to the West Bank. Egypt never formally annexed the Gaza Strip, which was also part of the old British mandate.

The American Position appears to be that although title to the West Bank and Gaza may be somewhat cloudy, Israel did not acquire a legitimate title when it drove out the Jordanians and Egyptians in 1967 and that Israeli settlements on all of the territories captured in that war are illegal under the terms of the fourth Geneva Convention, Article 49, which states that an occupying power may not "transfer parts of its own civilian population" into captured territories.

There is no question about the status of the Sinai or the Golan Heights, which clearly belonged to Egypt and Syria respectively.

No sooner had Begin returned from his triumphant visit to Washington to meet President Carter, however, than he legalized three settlements the previous government had branded as illegal and announced the establishment of three more in the West Bank.

Begin could claim with justification that he was merely legalizing three settlements that the weak Labor government had allowed to be set up and had condoned, de facto if not de jure, and that the three new settlements were part of an overall plan inherited from the Labor government. Still, the timing offended the Americans and frighten the Arabs.

Then the Gush Emounim (Faith Bloc), whose goal for years has been to force Israel into annexing the West Bank, soon asked for 12 new settlements in the Arab heartland, something said Begin had promised.

By this time, negotiations toward recovening a Geneva conference were reaching a delicate period and on the advice of some of his advisors and under intense pressure from the Americans, he made a compromise.

Begin's compromise was that the Gush Emunim could set up six new settlements now, instead of the 12, which would come at some later date. In addition, the six had to be temporarily established within existing Israeli army camps-many of which were formerly Jordanian army camps.

The settlers were to take on quasi-and still ill-defined military status, if not as soldiers, then as contractual workers.

The compromise satisfied no one but, for the Americans, it was better than adding to the actual number of settlments and for the farth bloc it was better than nothing.

Twice, when Gush Emunim tried to challenge Begin's authority by attempting to settle outside the designated camps, Begin called out the troops-much to the surprise of those who thought begin would never throw Jews off any part of the historic land of Israel.

Still, the compromise has caused domestic debate because many Israelis fear the politicization of the army and, if the settlements are under military control, there will be less parliamentary control over settlement policy. This is particularly worrying to Yadin's Democratic Movement for change, which has just joined Begin's government but is opposed to begin's settlements policy.

Instead of relaying on the Zionist Movement, which traditionally helps plan and finance new settlements, the government last week, in fact, told the Zionist Movement that the new settlements were none of their business and allocated 85 million Israeli pounds for them.

Therefore it is questionable in the long run, whether either the Americans or Yadin's party will be able to halt the spread of settlements in the Arab heartland.

On the other hand, the dreams of men such as Agricultural Minister Ariel Sharon and others who see millions of Jews coming to fill up the West Bank are not taken very seriously in Israel, where emigration and immigration just about cancel each other out.

Most Israelis do not want to live on the West bank and it is unlikely that the Gush Emunim could muster more than 500 families to move into the occupied territories.

The Gush Emunim's oldest settlement, Kiryat Arba on the hills outside of Hebron, is now a massive complex of fort-like highrises with 1,300 apartments. Yet, according to the housing ministry, 800 of those apartments are unoccupied. Each flat cost the government approximately $20,000

Thus the problem is not one of a great Jewish land rush into the occupied territories. The problem is that each dot, no matter how small, will make it more difficult to achieve an eventual Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories where Jews are living and working.

The motivation of the Gush Emunim is not simple religious fervor ableit some border on the fanatical in the opinion of the majority of Israelis. It is also a renaissance of the pioneering spirit that gripped the early Zionists and a turning away from the materalism of middle class life in the welfare state of today.

Take Ann Neuhranh, for example, a young trained nurse from Tel Aviv who immigrated to Israel from England in 1959.

She has brought her five children from a comfortable home in a Tel Aviv suburb to a temporary tent camp within Kadum, a Gush Emunim settlement that Begin recently legalized not far from Nablus. The tents were not water proof and when the rains came early this month, the camp was awash. The inhabitants had to find temporary shelter in the army camp.

Why did she come to such discomfort? "We believe this is part of Israel from way back," she said, "but it is more that we were fed up with our life in our neighborhood and decided to come and settle the land."

"Israel can be proud of the Gush Emunim settlers." Aricultural Minister Sharon told parliament recently. They had, he said, left their homes, their professions and comforts and were the most idealistic trend in the Zionist Movement since the era of the stockade and watchtower of the 1930's.

In truth, a great many gush Emunim settlers have not given up their homes in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel proper and many of them commute to work back in Israel every day. Nonetheless, the idealism of people like Neuhranh is a factor.

There have also been scenes that evoke a darker side to the Gush Emunim movement.

A group leader, a rabbi, a year ago, screaming from the steps of Abraham's Tomb here in Hebron: "Hebron is ours, Jericho is ours, Nabius is ours," while the crowd Arab population pecked from behind closed shutters and the town lay under total curfew.

Or Kiryat Arba residents wearing skull caps and carrying machine guns walking five abreast down the middle of the road, refusing to let Arab cars pass by them.

Or the two Israelis on the road between Kiryat Arba and Jerusalem who, when told by an elderly Arab that it would be better to go around another way because Arab teenagers were demonstrating and throwing stones, simply decided to drive on through and shoot the youths with a machine gun. Seven were injured.

That happened a year ago. There have been no arrests. "Can you imagine what would happen in this town if two Arabs gunned down seven Israelis?" a local resident said.

To the Arabs of the West Bank, land is all important and, as the mayor of Al Bira, Ibrahim Saliman Tawil, said recently, "They can take our land and threaten our lives and we have nothing with which to defend ourselves. We are an occupied people without civil rights. Our only weapon is try to get the news out of what is going on."

The Israelis argue that the new settlements within army camps wereJordanian army camps before the Israelis arrived, but the villagers say that the Jordanians had no more right to the land than the Israelis and that the land should belong to those who have farmed it for a thousand years.

Of the 79 settlements now in formal existence in the occupied territories, 17 are in the Rafiah sector of Gaza, separating Gaza from the northern Sinai. Three are in the Sinai itself along the way from the port of Eilat to Sharm el Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai-an area which Israel intends to keep.

Twenty one settlements are strung out in the Jordan River valley-a natural defense line to which the ruins of Roman and Saraeen watch towers on the heights attest.

Seven are in the "Elzion bloc," land formerly belonging to Jews near here and three are near Jerusalem. Kadur is near Nablus and Kiryat Arba overlooks Hebron.

In the rich fruit growing area stop the Golan Heights, which the Israelis captured from Syria in 1967, there are no less than 26 Israelis settlements-some involved with farming and others with light industry.

The Israeli say it is impossible to give these heights back to Syria because, for so many years, the Syrians shelled Israeli farms from the heights.

If that is so, the Arabs ask, why do the Israelis put more farms up on the Heights that could put Israelis within range of Syrian guns again?

Does that mean that more territory will be needed to protect the news settlements*

The Isrealis say that with a limited population, settlements take on a paramilitary nature and are needed for defense. Nevertheless, it is hotly debated question, not only abroad but within Israel itself, and the situation in southern Lebanon is not unrelated.

The Israelis backed the Arab Christians to gain de facto control of the strip along its northern border in order to protect Israeli farms and towns. Will Israel now need to push its defense perimeter furthur north to protect the Christians?

What are the limits of defensible borders? It is a question that Israelis are grappling with while the specter of the occupied territories provokes the feears among Arabs that Israel is a Zionist state that has to be expansionist almost by definition.

As for Prime Minister Begin, he said Friday that Israel would not be bound by any U.N. resolution denouncing Israeli colonization of the occupied territories. "The attitude of the Israeli government toward the settlement issue has been made clear to everybody and nothing has changed," he said.

So the never ending cycle of mistrust and fear in the Middle East continues and the Israelis are taking America's abstention at the United Nation as a victory.