Hebron, Israeli-occupied West Bank — It was late afternoon. A tractor operated by Israeli settlers began smashing into several uninhabited Arab houses in the old quarter of Hebron.
Palestinian merchant Yusuf Sharabati, his three-story house shaken by the destruction, railed at the Israeli settlers and threw stones at them. As the walls of his home cracked, he comforted his frightened wife and 11 children.
Nearby, Miriam Levinger, Brooklyn-born wife of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a leader of militant Jewish settlers, rejoiced that her 11 children would witness the rebuilding of the ancient Jewish quarter of Hebron.
It was Oct. 28. The Israelis were acting forcefully to rebuild the Jewish quarter in Hebron - an Arab West Bank city with 70,000 Palestinians. And, for the Israeli government, the move (only officially announced Nov. 3) reflects the government's determination to ignore President Reagan's call for a freeze on Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
The action also graphically demonstrates the unshakable will and political clout of ideologically and religiously motivated settlers. These Israelis are committed to reestablishing Jews on biblical West Bank sites, irrespective of international criticism or increasingly ugly relations with local Palestinian residents.
''We see ourselves as the movement of return,'' Mrs. Levinger says with conviction. She is sitting in the book-lined study of her home in a renovated Arab house in the former Jewish quarter. ''We came here because this is biblical Hebron.''
Mrs. Levinger says the land under the demolished buildings is still formally registered to Arab owners from before 1929.
''We have become like a ghetto,'' counters Acting Hebron Mayor Mustafa Natshe , ''with land confiscated all around our city for settlements or security reasons. Now they want to settle inside our city as well.''
''Why can they return to Jewish property in the West Bank when my family can't return to three houses we lost inside Jerusalem in the 1948 war?'' he asks.
Mr. Natshe, a small, rotund man in a neat business suit, insists that some of the destroyed buildings were owned by Arabs with title deeds. He fears future confiscations and worries about the fate of families like the Sharabatis, whose house will probably have to be razed for safety reasons.
Jerusalem sources believe the Americans will bring up the prospect of a settlement freeze when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin visits the White House on Nov. 19. But they say Mr. Begin intends to reject any such American proposal, just as he rejected the reported proposal by Moshe Arens, Israeli ambassador to the US, to impose a six-month freeze on West Bank settlements.
Meanwhile, there appears to be competition within the Begin government over credit for establishing new settlements. Deputy Prime Minister and Housing Minister David Levi - a political rival of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who engineered the massive settlement drive of the last two years - announced Nov. 3 at the dedication of a new settlement that five more permanent settlements would soon be established under the auspices of his ministry.
Also, the government recently asked parliamentary approval for the equivalent of an additional $15.5 million during this fiscal year for establishment and expansion of existing settlements.
A Construction and Housing Ministry spokesman said approval has been given for developing three sites in downtown Hebron - the bulldozed area scheduled for 21 apartments as well as renovation of two formerly Jewish-owned buildings in which settler families now live, known as Beit Hadassah and Beit Romano. Settlers from the Hebron Jewish suburb of Kiryat Arba say they ultimately hope to link the three sites with a chain of Jewish buildings.
A settlement blueprint, drafted in October 1981 by Matityahu Drobles, co-chairman of the Jewish Agency settlement department, calls for settlement of 100,000 Jews in the West Bank by 1985 around and between Arab population centers. (There are now 103 settlements with about 25,000 settlers on the West Bank alongside a population of 800,000 Palestinians.)
But the Hebron decision will establish an especially militant body of Jewish settlers in the heart of the most conservative and religious Muslim-Arab city on the West Bank, with a tradition of Arab-Jewish violence.
''This is a recipe for an explosion,'' said one Israeli familiar with Hebron. (It may also become a precedent for establishment of a Jewish religious school on the edge of the West Bank's largest city, Nablus, as demanded by young Jewish religious students who now pray there regularly.)
A city of low stone houses set in the midst of rolling farmland covered with grape arbors, Hebron is one of four holy towns where Jews lived from biblical days until early this century. Amid the heat of Arab-Jewish political competition in 1929 an Arab massacre of 67 Jews ended any Jewish presence in Hebron's ghetto until Israel occupied the city in 1967. Muslims and Jews now pray in tense proximity at an adjacent mosque and synagogue over the tombs of the biblical patriarchs.
Rabbi Levinger sparked the movement to resettle Hebron by squatting illegally with followers in a Hebron hotel in 1968 until the government finally let him establish Kiryat Arba. Mrs. Levinger and a group of Kiryat Arba women illegally squatted in Beit Hadassah until political resistance to their presence died.
But the decision to rebuild the Jewish quarter is an outgrowth of a chain of violent incidents between local Arabs and settlers. It was taken in principle in February 1980 as a response to the murder of one settler in the town, and bolstered by the murder of six more in front of Beit Hadassah in May 1980. Implementation was delayed by high-level opposition within the ruling coalition, which has now faded. It is believed the current move is a response to the stabbing of a Kiryat Arba postman in the Hebron market on Oct. 20.
Relations between the Hebron municipality and the settlers of Kiryat Arba and downtown Hebron - long marked by Arab charges of Jewish harassment as well as by attacks on Jews - have been steadily deteriorating. One week after the stabbing of the postman, two Hebron Arab youths were seriously injured by a booby-trapped grenade of Israeli Army make placed in the spectator area of the local football field. Six similar grenades were found nearby.
While accusing no one, Mayor Natshe shows a visitor a letter on stationary of the Local Council of Kiryat Arba dated the day after the stabbing which warns, ''Know that we can't stand aside when the blood of our friends flows.''
A Kiryat Arba settler was recently convicted in an Israeli court of planning to bomb the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest site.
Mayor Natshe says he has no contact with the Israeli civilian authorities on the West Bank, whom he believes want to depose him because of his nationalistic views. The city of Hebron, which is attached to the Israeli electricity grid, was cut off for a half day on Nov. 4. Israeli electric authorities said the town was slow in paying its bill; Mayor Natshe, who insists the money was to be paid on the Nov. 4 due date, claims the move was political harassment.
Mrs. Levinger is not worried about Arab resentment, nor does she feel Jewish settlement in Hebron is unjust. ''I can't fix Auschwitz, where I lost 80 percent of my family,'' she says, ''but here I can fix the Hebron massacre of Jews.''
''Besides,'' she adds, ''I see the Jewish people as sovereign here. Our claim to sovereignty goes back 4,000 years. For me that can't be disputed.''
Next: takeover of land.