A former head of Israel's General Security Service has ignited a sharp new round of political debate here by publicly charging that Israel's drive to settle the occupied West Bank has encouraged lawlessness and that the Jewish settlements in the territory indirectly serve as "a hothouse for the growth of terrorism."

Avraham Ahituv, who headed the Security Service, Israel's equivalent of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, from 1974 to 1980, made the charge in an article last week in Davar, a left-wing newspaper with ties to the opposition Labor Alignment. He called for a halt to Jewish settlement near Arab population centers and warned that if lawlessness among Jewish settlers is not curbed it will pose "a painful threat to any government" requiring "extensive and severe measures."

While Ahituv did not directly accuse Jewish settlers of attacking West Bank Arabs, he strongly suggested that he believes settlers were responsible for the 1980 car bombings that maimed two West Bank Arab mayors and the attack last month at the Islamic University in Hebron in which three Arab students were killed and 33 were injured.

Ahituv headed the Security Service at the time of the car bombings, which have never been solved but which are widely thought to have been in retaliation for the ambush killing a month earlier of six Jewish settlers in the Arab city of Hebron. There also have been no arrests in connection with the assault on the Islamic University, also widely believed here to have been an act of revenge by settlers for the stabbing death of a Jewish seminary student in Hebron.

Ahituv said no Jewish settlement should be established unless the safety of the settlement and of those who travel to and from it can be guaranteed. Otherwise, he said, there will inevitably be "the occasional attack and a subsequent chain reaction."

He called for the government to block the plans of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a founder of Qiryat Arba, and other militant settlers to expand the small Jewish presence within Hebron, an Arab city of 70,000.

"With all the leftover bitterness and resentment at our having been kicked out of Hebron" following a massacre of Jews in 1929, Ahituv said, "is it indeed worth our while to allow a group of people who don't excel so greatly in restrained conduct toward their Arab neighbors to settle in their midst, and of necessity to stir up enmities that exist on both sides, and then to endure chain reactions, time after time?"

Ahituv said he wrote the article to explain why enforcement agencies, which have a generally dismal record in investigating attacks against West Bank Arabs, have failed to penetrate the close-knit society of militant Jewish settlers. But in doing so, he also lent an authoritative voice to the domestic opposition to the government's settlement policies and to those Israelis who argue that government encouragement of the settlers is leading Israel toward moral bankruptcy.

Since publication of the article, Ahituv has been denounced by prosettlement politicians and other spokesmen, for, in the words of one, posing "a danger to the nation's security" and for a breach of his responsibility as a former security chief to maintain silence on such matters.

Ahituv noted that Jewish settlement of the West Bank began under a Labor Party government and that after the 1977 election of Prime Minister Menachem Begin "all the doubts and hesitations evaporated, and approval was extended clearly and unequivocally."

The settlement process, Ahituv wrote, has been "a resounding victory," but its price has been a "deep psychological scar in the relationship between the settlers and the government and an accelerated and sharpened confrontation with the Palestinian Arabs.

Some settlements such as Qiryat Arba, a large enclave of militant Jews adjacent to Hebron, came into existence "by people taking the law into their own hands, sometimes through trickery and deception and sometimes through explicit insubordination and confrontation with the Army," Ahituv said.

As a result, he said, "the settlers discovered in practical terms" that "there was no need to hold back from confrontations with the authorities or from unapproved actions."

People who see themselves as courageous "pioneers" in a just cause do not easily break under interrogation when arrested on suspicion of a crime and are buttressed by strong moral support from their fellow settlers, Ahituv said. He said the official blessings given to the settlements by both the previous Labor government and the Begin government removed any "justification for security agencies to treat this sector of the public with undue suspicion" and seek to penetrate it with intelligence agents and informers.

Ahituv said Israel's poor record in apprehending those responsible for attacks on West Bank Arabs "reflects primarily an intelligence failure" and that improved intelligence on the settlements "might well put an end to a dangerous process and deter others from starting on the same road."