Despite the promise of Palestinian autonomy contained in the Camp David peace accords, the Israeli-occupied West Bank is undergoing a dramatic and perhaps irrevocable transformation, linking it ever more closely to the Jewish state.

The metamorphosis threatens to outstrip efforts by American, Egyptian and Israeli negotiators to set up the self-governing authority foreseen at Camp David.

In effect, it presents the diplomats with a moving target at which neither the Americans nor the Egyptians have taken clear aim. The Israeli government is pushing this target as fast as possible, with the declared goal of making impossible a negotiated return of the occupied territories to Arab rule.

Since the accords were signed nearly two years ago, the physical landscape of the West Bank has changed with the addition of 39 new Jewish civilian communities, bringing the total number of settlements operating there, under construction or approved by the government, to 72. They now have a population of about 14,000.

In all, since the West Bank was captured by Israel in 1967, nearly one-third of its 2,200-square-mile area has been bought, expropriated, "closed" or otherwise seized for Israel civilian and military purposes. The settlements alone cover 28,000 acres.

At the same time, the political landscape has also shifted dramatically as the leadership of the West Bank national movement has been deported, maimed or cowed by a combination of a crackdown -- described by the military authorities as a new era -- and threats and attacks by ultranationalists Jewish settlers.

Running through these changes -- and helping promote them -- is an accelerated integration of the West Bank economy into that of Israel proper. Thirteen years after Israeli forces occupied the West Bank, its 720,000 Arab inhabitants get 90 percent of their imports from Israel and send more than 75,000 laborers to work in the Israeli economy. These Palestinians represent more than a third of the West Bank work force and 6 percent of all employment in Israel.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government, which, since it took over in 1977, has purposefully promoted the changes, cites the need for security against Arab attack and the Jews' historical claim to all the biblical Land of Israel between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

Increasingly, West Bank Palestinians express fears that the Israelis' ultimate goal is to drive them from the land to make way for Jews. A growing number of Israeli settlers and even government officials acknowledge that they are counting on substantial Arab emigration and simultaneous Jewish settlement to make a Palestinian state on the West Bank an impossibility.

Sitting in a shabby office of Halhoul's town hall, dispirited Councilman Abdul Mohsin Atrash reflected on what has grown from 13 years of Israeli military occupation in his West Bank town about 20 miles south of Jerusalem. m

"In the past, we used to say we will push them into the sea," he said with a wan smile. "But they are pushing us into the desert. We said it, but we didn't do it. They push us into the desert, but they don't say it."

Atrash is one of several Halhoul council members trying to run the town in the vacuum left by the June 3 deportation of Mayor Mohammed Milhem, a nationalist leader the Israelis charged with inciting Palestinians to resist the occupation. The town's top executive since Milhem was taken from his home and helicoptered to Lebanon is Deputy Mayor Hijazi Khalil Madhia, 74, a merchant who says he has found a way to have good relations with the Israelis.

"I don't get involved in politics," he explained. "I just administer the city."

A visitor listening to such West Bank Palestinians or Israeli officials talk about the future of the land is struck by the gap that seems to exist between what they believe and do and what the U.S. Egyptian and Israeli autonomy negotiatiors are striving to achieve.

A U.S. diplomat deeply involved in the autonomy process expressed doubt that even State Department experts in Washington are fully aware of the scope of changes occurring on the West Bank bearing directly on the possibility of ever setting up a self-governing authority for Palestinians there.

Egyptian and American officials along with some West Bank Palestinians themselves, often speak of the possibility of a return to power by the Israeli Labor Party sometime in the next year as an opening for a more flexible Israeli attitude and a hope for reversing the Judaization of the West Bank being carried out by Begin.

In the same context, they point to the relatively small number of Jews compared to Arabs on the West Bank despite the swift expansion of settlements in the last two years. Some Israelis maintain that the settlements could still be torn-down as part of a political accomodation, just as Israelis settlements in the Sinai were given up to Egypt as part of the peace treaty.

"They are Potemkin settlements," sniffed an Israeli journalist, pointing out that most settlers drive to work every day in Israeli cities and actually populate the West Bank only at night.

But Begin top settlement aides confidently declare that their work over the last three years has formed an irreversible "skeleton" for a Jewish-inhabited West Bank and made a Sinai-type retrenchment physically impossible even if the political decision were made.

In any case, Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader and its putative prime minister, says he sees no need to do away with the Jewish settlements to reach an accommodation on West Bank autonomy.

"Labor surely would emphasize the security considerations rather than just the historical rights . . . But I don't see any need for dismantling settlements," he said in an interview last month.

Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, the former Army general who has taken Begin's settlement policies from the Cabinet room to the West Bank, dismisses any chance that Labor could reverse his three years of aggressive settlement or rechart what he calls "an entirely new map of the country."

"This map exists," he said one recent day as he drove down the Allon Road linking a north-south line of Israeli settlements astride a mountainous West Bank ridge overlooking the Jordan Valley.

"You just can't do anything about it any more. That is why it is impossible any more to talk about the Jordanian option or territorial compromise. We are going to leave an entirely different map of the country that it will be impossible to ignore. I don't see any way any government will be able to dismantle the settlements of Judea and Samaria."

Sharon's eyes light up as he points across the haze hanging over the Jordan Valley, toward a peak in what is now Jordan, and recalls its role in the ancient Jewish system of lighting beacons to announce the beginning of a new lunar month, from the temple of Jerusalem "all the way to Mesopotamia."

Fueling the strength of this bull of a man is an ancient heritage rooted in biblical descriptions of the Jewish kingdom. By his own account, the self-described pragmatist is also carrying out a commandment from the Prophet Abraham that has become the Zionist dream extended to the West Bank, despite international conventions prohibiting an occupying power from transferring its own civilian population to conquered territory.

Sharon's powerful bulk and overwhelming energy come to life as he strides across the rocky terrain, his head slightly down in the pose of a charging bull, and points to another hilltop settlement as an example of his "practical Zionism."

"I believe in things that are done, in facts that are created," he says. "Believe me, I've climbed every hill, not once but 10 times."

Begin's government in recent months has shifted away from its previous emphasis on Jews' historical right to the West Bank, reflecting concern over opposition abroad, including some of the U.S. Jewish community. Instead, government officials are stressing the West Bank's importance to Israeli security, reviving the main thrust of the Labor Party's traditional approach before it fell from power.

The exception is Jerusalem. There is virtual unanimity in Israel -- among Begin's Likud government, the Labor opposition and public opinion in general -- that all Jerusalem including the Arab sector captured from Jordan in 1967 must remain as Israel's united capital because of historical Jewish attachments to the city.

Israel annexed the Arab portion of the city only 18 days after it was captured. Begin and his opposition alike insist that Jerusalem, with its 100,000 Arab inhabitants, must be excluded from any West Bank autonomy plan despite the position of the United States and most of the rest of the world that the Holy City's eastern sector is part of the West Bank territory and that its fate thus must be decided in negotiations.

The Knesset, Israel's parliament, voted in July to consecrate the Israeli sentiment in a law reasserting perpetual Israeli sovereignty over the entire city.

But outside Jerusalem, the current emphasis is on Israel's need of the West Bank to guarantee its security.

In the west, to compensate for a lack of depth along the densely populated coastal plain, the government has built a north-south chain of settlements along heights as close as nine miles from the Mediterranean beaches and only a few miles inside the line that was Israel's border before the conquests of 1967.

Another north-south settlement belt stretches along the spine of the West Bank's central highlands overlooking the fertile Jordan Valley, creating opulated, well-armed outpost astride crucial road junctions.

A third strip of settlements lies in the valley along the western edge of the Jordan River, providing a front line of defense against any attack from the east.

Transversing west to east, in addition to the regular Jerusalem-Jericho road, is the partially completed trans-Samaria road linking Israel proper to the easternmost settlements and making it possible to drive from the Jordan Valley to Tel Aviv in one hour. A second road, named after the late foreign minister Yigael Allon, knits together the settlement and defense chain running north and south along the central highlands ridge.

Two more east-west routes also are planned, one north of Nablus and another south of Bethlehem connecting Israel's rich agricultural plain with the Dead Sea on Jordan's post-1967 boundaries.

Despite the implacable logic of the Israeli defense aims, a recurring theme emerging from interviews with West Bank Palestinians is a fear that Israelis are repeating on the West Bank the same settlement tactics that half a century ago enabled Jews to gain first a foothold and then control over the Western part of the Palestinian mandate that became Israel in 1948.

Sharon himself recalls those "nation-building" days in describing his aim for "continuity of settlement" on the West Bank. The goal, he says, is to create a network of safe zones for Jews so that a Jewish woman on a Jordan Valley settlement could drive across the West Bank from "light to light" in the middle of the night to give birth in a Jerusalem hospital without having to fear Arab hostility along the way.

"All that will reduce tension," he says. "But in the future. The difficulties are now."

Whatever the motives for Israel's transformation of the West Bank, the changes clearly do not fit in with U.S. policy, which defines the settlements as illegal according to international conventions.

Despite the disagreement, however, the United States has given Israel $1.78 billion a year in military and economic aid since the Begin government came to power.

While none of the money is earmarked directly for settlements, and while Israeli officials declare none of it is spent on the West Bank settlements, U.S. diplomats say they have no way of monitoring how some aid money is spent and, in any case, that aid for other projects frees Israel's own funds for the settlements.

"If money goes into one pot, there is nothing to prevent them from putting it into another pot," said one American diplomat.

This paradox and the widespread Palestinian belief that the United States is helping fund the settlements have proved to be a major obstacle to fulfillment of the negotiating process that was to grow from the Camp David accords and the March 26, 1979, Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, according to the vision portrayed by U.S. diplomats at the time.

Mayor Elias Freij of Bethelehem recalls a four-hour meeting with Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders a month after the Camp David accords during which Saunders reportedly pounded the table and raised his voice to persuade West Bank leaders that the accords would be their first step toward freedom from Israeli occupation.

"Sovereignty over the land belongs to the people who live there," Freij quotes the U.S. envoy as shouting.

Even then, the Israeli government protested American efforts to depict the accords as the Palestinians' opening toward self-determination. Now, two years later, the American overtures have faded, the Palestinians have grown cynical and the Israelis are still warning against "overpromising."

"It's a mistake," says Sharon. "There are things that can be done and there are things that can't be done.But when it comes to security and our existence, there is nothing to give. Overpromising the Arabs, believe me, that alone will postpone agreement."

Despite skepticism from the beginning, the early U.S. promises had generated at least a measure of hope among some Palestinian leaders on the West Bank and even within the Palestine Liberation Organization of Yasser Arafat.

A high PLO official revealed recently in Beirut that the guerrillas leadership was genuinely worried in the first months after Camp David that West Bank mayors could seize upon autonomy, despite its limitations, as the only way remaining to rid their constituents of Israeli military occupation.

"Now we're not worried at all," he said, smiling.

One of those who felt that hope was Halhoul Councilman Atrash, who said he "clapped" when the accords and their promise of autonomy were first announced.

Now, however, his applause has turned to a jeer:

"You ask why the Palestinians don't attend the autonomy talks. But Begin says the land is theirs, the security is theirs, the sky is theirs. I ask you, why should the Palestinians join the talks? What is left to negotiate?"