Recent violence in Hebron and Israeli plans to settle a large Jewish population in the heart of the Palestinian urban area symbolize the general trend of Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank. This policy is openly designed to produce conditions in which no Israeli government will be able to negotiate territory and in which Palestinian self-determin-ation will be impossible - in short to fore-close the chance of any practical solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Little time remains before Western Palestine (Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza) will be set in its new and potentially catastrophic mold. Today approximately 115,000 Jewish settlers live on the West Bank: 85,000 in the vicinity of East Jerusalem, and 30,000 elsewhere.
There have been some difficulties in achieving population targets for the new urban estates, despite strenuous manipulation of the internal housing market, as indicated by postponement of the date for 100,000 Jews in the West Bank beyond annexed East Jerusalem from 1985 to 1987. Nonetheless precedent indicates that almost 200,000 settlers will be in place within four years.
For Israel the final incorporation of the West Bank and Gaza implies short-term external security (though of a type which guarantees perpetual military confrontation) at the expense of long-term internal insecurity. Whatever the conflicting demographic projections, ''Greater Israel'' means immediately raising the Palestinian proportion of the population from 17 percent to nearly 40 percent. These two million Palestinians cannot ever be expected to have any sympathy for the structure and ideology of the ruling apparatus.
The idea of depriving West Bank/Gaza Palestinians of voting rights for the Knesset under Israeli rule through ''self-administration'' and ''Jordanian citizenship'' could not be long sustained in a Jewish state which wished to remain democratic, and a Knesset where Palestinians occupy more than one-third of the seats would mean the replacement of the Jewish state by binationalism - something neither major Israeli political block intends permitting.
By imposing comprehensive mixing of the Jewish and Palestinian populations through its colonization program the Begin government is thus steadily converting a problem which could be relatively easily solved through territorial partition of Western Palestine between Israel and a Palestinian state into a problem which will increasingly resemble the more intricate South African case. Here the only alternative to a rigorously discriminatory political system of the South African type would be forcing a large-scale exodus of Palestinians across the Jordan.
West Bank Palestinians currently live under great pressure from settlement activities, in terms both of the erosion of land and water resources and settler vigilante operations.
As regards land assessing what proportion of the West Bank has come under direct Israeli control no longer has much meaning; the legal devices of ''state land,'' ''military reserve,'' ''absentee property,'' ''road reserve,'' and so on have been refined to a point where virtually all locations are vulnerable to seizure or closure. The favorite device is exploitation of title defects and old Ottoman land codes to declare village farming terrain ''state land'' - the villagers are given 30 days to produce full documentation before the bulldozers move in to clear the ground for settlers. Palestinians have been fighting desperate rear-guard actions, usually unsuccessful, in the High Court of Justice: the only Israeli institution still perceived as offering any hope of fairness.
Water problems have been temporarily relieved by good rains in the last wet season, but will reemerge as soon as the reserves begin to deplete. So far the most difficult cases have been in the Auja and Bardala sections of the Jordan Valley, where new bores for Israeli settlements lowered the water table to the severe detriment of neighboring villages. This outcome was forecast in Israel's 1974 ''Master Plan for Water Supply in the Jordan Rift.''
Settler vigilante activities began in the mid-1970s and in the early 1980s became a frequent feature of life in the Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Hebron areas. Incidents included vandalization of property, physical pressure on Palestinians to leave areas designated for settlement expansion, and violent personal assault. Such settler lawlessness almost invariably went without sanction, in contrast to the harsh collective punishments used to suppress Palestinian disorders.
As reported in Ha-aretz (June), the Karp Commission, appointed to investigate settler vigilantism, noted ''sloppiness and red tape in the investigation of Arab complaints, files closed before investigation completed - cases in which Jews threatened Arabs and required them to sell land. In some of these cases Arabs dropped complaints to the police after pressures and threats were used against them.'' Lack of action on the findings resulted in the resignation of Yehudit Karp, head of the investigation, and it remains to be seen whether there will be any practical effects. The auguries are not good.
The poisonous atmosphere in Hebron, where the growth of the Kiryat Arba settlement and its outlier in the town center have produced deep fear and anger among the 70,000 Palestinian inhabitants, provides a warning of the general future between Israelis and Palestinians as the colonization continues. There is no question that a large-scale resurrection of the Jewish quarter in central Hebron would mean the forcible displacement of many Palestinians, probably accompanied by further bloodshed.
It is of course true that much blame for the present nadir in the Arab-Israeli conflict can be attributed to the cynical maneuverings of Arab regimes and incompetent American foreign policy. Indeed the United States ''bankrolls'' the occupied territory colonization, as Israel could not divert the requisite resources without general US subsidization.
None of this, however, affects the fact that the Begin government's colonization and absorption of the occupied territories is a pernicious policy which harms rather than assists Israel's security, which slams the door on any resolution of the conflict, and which promises continued degrading and violent consequences for both Palestinians and Israelis. The supine passivity of the United States in the face of this policy should be a cause for deep regret.