Last weekend, thousands of Israelis out for a leisurely drive stopped by this Mediterranean seaside town for what many indicated was a last look at its white- palm-lined beaches before they revert to Egypt.

"I had the feeling they were coming to my funeral," declared a bitter Zev Golan, one of the residents of this Jewish community.

Golan and the 1,500 other Israelis living in this largely prefabricated new town located between the Arab cities of Gaza and El Arish have become the focus of a major controversy over the return of Jewish settlements to Egypt as part of a Middle East peace settlement.

The people of Yamit comprise about half of the permanent Israeli residents of the 25-mile Rafiah salient --a strip of land that Israel captured from Egypt along with the rest of the Sinai in the 1967 Six-Day war.

Yamit's residents are clearly anxious and confused by the conflicting reports over whether the Israeli government is going to return the area to Egyptian sovereignty as part of a peace settlement, or continue to build it up as a strategic region.

"If you listen to the news for five minutes, Sadat says tear us down, then Begin says build it up, so you get mishugina [Yiddish for crazy]," says 32-year-old Iris Golan.

She spoke amid the noise of drilling and hammering as workmen completed installations in her bright clothing store in Yamit's newly completed shopping center.

The German-born Iris Golan said she came here from New York with her Israeli-born husband when Yamit was founded two years ago. "This was never officially part of Israel," she conceded. "But who thought that this place would be given back after it was established as a city? Peace isn't here yet, it's only talk."

The continuing privately funded construction in Golan's store is mirrored by continued publicly financed building in Yamit and at various other points in the Rafiah Salient. Reports of new bulldozing operations at eight sites prompted suspiciods U.S. government requests last week for an explanation of what Israel was doing when it was about to open talks with Egypt about handling the area back.

After what nearly erupted into an Israeli government crisis, the Cabinet decided that it would add people and farmlands to existing settlements --but not set up new ones.

Many of the residents of the area see this as nothing but a matter of semantics. They say they do not care if the government chooses to call what were originally planned as new settlements enlargements of old ones.

A visit to the new sites shows, however, that the government is not yet making a large commitment of new funds to development.

Around the Haruvit settlement south of Yamit, for instance, bulldozers have been working since last week at three sites about half a mile apart at equal distance from the cooperative -- whose housetrailers give it, too, an air of impermanency.

So far, the bulldozers have done nothing but flatten large sand dunes and dig deep holes in the sand.

At one of the sites, on either side of the rusted, long-inoperative Cairo-Damascus rail line, a bulldozer operator was asked what he was doing. "I don't know," he replied. Asked how large an area he was supposed to clear, he again answered, "I don't know." Surely he must know how much sand he was supposed to move, it was suggested to him. With a smile and a good accent, he said, "I don't speak English."

Still further along the cactus-lined road toward the Suez Canal, past blown-up Egyptian pillboxes, hulks of Egyptian army trucks, skeletal freight cars and other relics of the six-day war of 1967, is Neot Sinai (Sinai Oases), the settlement where Prime Minister Menahem Begin has bought a house for retirement.

One of about 30 identical houses, 10 of which are still unoccupied, it is tiny and unassuming -- with light tan bricks, practically the color of the sand that drifts over the walkways, and red tin corrugated roof with a pair of solar heaters for making hot water.

Each of the houses spaced symmetrically about 20 feet apart has two bedrooms and a small living room. There have been people living in them for seven months. The large turkey runs at the entrance to the settlement are still empty.

Asked if she would be willing to live under the Egyptian flag, Ofira Siebert, a young British-educated Israeli, replied. "If I know I'm safe, why not? I have faith in Mr. Begin."

Her husband works for the Israeli army in the region, like the typical resident of Yamit, more than half of whom belong to military families stationed here or working under contract for the military.

"We're not fearful, we're very hopeful," said Siebert.

Such expressions of confidence seem to be usual But the thought that the residents of Yamit and the nearby settlements would be willing to accept Egyptian sovereignty in name if they can continue under Israel in fact appears to be growing, despite Egyptian President Sadat's statements that he could not tolerate Israeli settlers under a peace agreement.

"We are going to live here as Israelis," said Yamit's chief administrator, David Hartum, 32, "I don't think everybody is bothered what is going to be sovereignty. What's important is that we'll have Israeli security forces."

No one has decided to move out, and there are still people moving in or buying building lots, said Hartum. Until the town is entitled to elect its own government, after the population reaches 5,000, Hartum, a civil servant, will be the chief executive.

He estimates that the town, now two years old, will take another 18 months to reach that stage. Even when that happens, he said, he plans to stay. He bought his apartment with $1,700 down payment two months ago, he said.

He recalled that the town was originally proposed four years ago as a major port complex with a population of 250,000 by then-Defense Minister Moshe Dyan. The plans have since been scaled down to 30,000 inhabitants in six one-kilometer-square units the size of the present town. The government has spent about $25 million on Yamit so far.

Dayan's idea was to place a major Israeli settlement between the Arab-populated Gaza Strip and Egypt, so that the Egyptians would never be in a position to make a practical claim to Gaza.

Through all of the diplomatic minutes between Sadat and Begin, the Egyptian leaders has yet to give any indication that he has the least ingetting back the Gaza which today is a depressing combination of rural and urban slum populated by 400,000 Arabs, two-thirds of whom are refugees from present-day Israel. Sadat has repeatedly suggested that Gaza should be linked with Jordan.

The town administrator sounds like a suburban land developer when he talks to callers inquiring about the latest batch or building lots opened to the public. "There are still some lots left, but I can't promise that there will be any next week," he told one caller.

Twenty lots, at $2,500 for a 49-year lease, were bought last weekend, and the town real estate office is a busy place. Hartum said that a similar offering last year evoked much less interest, and he agreed that all the publicity about Yamit's future probably has something to do with the increased interest.

Selim Calipha, 50, a Jew from Iraq who has been in Israel 28 years, said he was buying a lot to build a house because he wants to support the people of Yamit and to show them that they should not be afraid of Egyptian sovereignty and start moving away.

A building contractor, he said he already has a house he likes in Beersheba, but that coming to Yamit would be for him "something like Zionism, but more." He said his family, with twin girls 17-years old at home and two sons away in the army, had agreed to move here.

Ruth Rudashevsky, 36, a member of one of the 15 Russian Jewish families at Yamit, said she would never have come here if she had ever thought it would become Egyptian. She said she might stay "if we stay as Israeli citizens under Israeli law. But I can't understand how that would work."

Even so, she said, the new tension since the possibility arose that Yamit might become Egyptian is nothing like the constant anxiety she said she always experienced in her native town of Vilna.

She described being called in by the secret police in Vilna to explain what she had been saying in a conversation she was holding in Yiddish while on a vacation thousands of miles away, in Soviet Georgia.

"In Russia, I never had a feeling of personal security. I never knew what could happen from one moment to the next. There was always tension."

"I had the same feeling of tension as a Jew in America," interjected New York-born Zvi Arenstein, the Sinai correspondent of the Jerusalem Post and a member of one of the 25 American Jewish families in Yamit.

Sarah Feifel, another American from Cincinnati, recalled, "I heard about a place being built in the desert. I visited El Arish in 1970 and I fell in love with it. I wanted to live in a place like that, but new and clean and with Jewish people. So I decided I'm going to work and live in Yamit.