The January wind was biting, the mud ankle deep, and the wood-burning stove in the long rectangular tent barely warmed the two dozen people inside. But the Jewish settlers, squatting illegally on this hilltop in the occupied West Bank, had a pressing reason for enduring the elements: They wanted to make sure that the Begin government followed through on its promise to give them a settlement site here . . . before the scheduled June 30 election that may usher Mr. Begin out of office.
Their aim was, and is, to move from their nearby temporary settlement of Givon, established by the Likud coalition government 3 1/2 years ago in prefabricated housing rectangles and a refurbished Jordan Army barracks. But Givon is hemmed in and prevented from expanding by Arab villages below. Hence the sit-in -- reportedly rewarded after three days by a government promise to give them the hoped-for Givat Ze'ev site.
The Israeli elections are expected to return to power the opposition Labor Party, which opposes settlement in populated Arab areas over which it wants to negotiate with Jordan. The present government believes the whole West Bank must be retained for historic and security reasons. So the givon settlers were taking no chances.
Their protest reflected determination among West Bank Jewish settlers and concern among leading government figures that the government's settlement program be completed over the next five months. Its aim: to confront the next government with a settlement fait accompli,m a grid of Jewish enclaves crisscrossing the West Bank and ruling out negotiations over any segment of it.
If the settlements are well established, government thinking goes, then Labor will not dare dismantle them or stop subsidizing them.
"It will now be necessary for us to conduct a race against time," argues Mattiyahu Drobles, head of the World Zionist Federation's settlement division and chief architect, along with Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, of the government's settlement policy.
"The best . . . way of removing every shadow of doubt about our intention to hold on to Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] forever is by speeding up the settlement momentum in these territories."
As rain blew in through the tent flaps, Avi Gonen, one of the leaders of the Givon squatters, added, "No tractor will move here unless work starts at once," a clear reference to a possible Labor victory.
Under pressure of time, numbers of settlements have become secondary to expanding existing enclaves and increasing the population. Also critical is location: the settlements, a mix of rural, industrial, and semiurban sites ranging in size from a handful of families to the 3,000-strong town of Kiryat Arba, are clustered in blocks aimed at dividing the Arab population, as well as encircling areas like Jericho, which Labor has mentioned as negotiable.
Accordig to Mr. Drobles, in a settlement strategy report published in September 1980: "Being cut off by Jewish settlements, the minority population will find it difficult to form a territorial and political continuity."
Figures on the exact number of settlements are confusing. They vary among government agencies according to differing definitions -- for example, whether certain sites are new or are simply extensions of previous outposts. Some officials are incensed by the international interest in the figures.
"Six, four, seven, is it so important?" exploded Uri BarOn, assistant to Agriculture Minister Sharon, to The Christian science Monitor. "In South America, hundreds are killed every day and no one says anything, but everyone makes so much noise over every bulldozer in Judea and Samaria."
A well-informed source in the settlement division of the World Zionist Organization fixed the current figure for settlements all over the West Bank at 71. The Likud government takes credit for establishing all but 24 since it came to power in 1977, focusing attention on 21 built in areas populated heavily by Palestinians.
Last May, Prime Minister Menachem Begin said the government planned to build only 10 more settlemets. Most government sources queried agreed that of these 10, six are under construction -- all included in the figure of 71 -- and only four more sites remain to be chosen.
Of the established settlements, many are no more than small outposts of caravans or prefabricated housing units outlined in isolation on the tops of stony hills. The government has aimed to increase the number of settlers from the current 17,400 -- up from 3,200 in 1977, according to the prime minister's office -- to 28,000 before it left office. But Labor Party critics say a supreme effort will be needed to boost the figure to 20,000 by June.
Nevertheless, rapid construction work can be seen changing the face of settlements throughout the West Bank. Several months ago the controversial hilltop settlement of Elon Moreh near Nablus could be reached only by a potholed , partially dirt road through an Arab village. Today that potholed roads ends in a broad, newly asphalted highway bypassing the village.
Ellon Moreh's original 40 prefab homes, only half of which were occupied last April, are filled. Alongside are the shells- in-progress of another 36 permanent concrete homes. Prefab sidings faced with blocks of Jerusalem stone can be seen in piles at sites of expanding settlements.
Huge earthmoving machines meanwhile are working on the last link of Mr. Sharon's pet project, the cross-Samaria defense highway, which will form an east-west link connecting settlements in the Jordan valley with the Israeli coast.
But lack of funds has spurred the agriculture minister to propose controversial new housing projects for the West Bank. He roused Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek's wrath by suggesting that private building contractors be given valuable state-owned land in Jerusalem and other cities in lieu of payment for fast home construction on the West Bank.
Mr. Sharon also reportedly has backed a fund-raising campaign in South Africa among supporters of the ultranationalist settler movement, Gush Emunim, to raise money for construction.
The Ministry of Housing, which is in charge of nonagricultural, urban-style settlements on the West Bank, is holding intensive negotiations with groups of contractors on the construction of 3,000 housing units, mainly villas, to be awarded without public tender, in the settlements of Karnei Shomron Elkana and Shavei Shomron.
The Housing Ministry is encouraging "build your own home" projects among settlers to speed construction. It is such a project that the Givon squatters on Givat Ze'ev hill are being promised.
The government also hopes to thicken settlement blocks by establishing five or six new paramilitary settlements along the slopes of the Hebron hills just inside the 1967 borders. There also would be two or three new paramilitary units -- which later may become civilian settlements -- within the West Bank, near the Yatir block of settlements south of Hebron.
Israeli critics of the government's settlement policy charge that political motives have led the Likud to sink huge sums into uneconomical and militarily insecure outposts which will never have the population or occupational infrastructure to become self-supporting.
Raanan Weitz, co-chairman of the World Zionist Organization's settlement department and a bitter opponent of the policies of Mr. Drobles, has accused the government of "running amok" on settlement, "driving stakes" in areas heavily populated by Arabs, while "the gap between the establishment of temporary sites and their transformation into permanent ones is ever-widening. . . ."
Mr. Weitz, like many Labor Party supporters, does not oppose settlement altogether but believes it should be concentrated in strategic, unpopulated areas.
Even supporters admit the supply of ideologically motivated settlers is limited. But they are ready to recruit less idealistic settlers with promises of cheap, subsidized housing on the West Bank within commuting distance of major cities. Many settlements, including Givon, have the air of future bedroom suburbs: The vast majority of the breadwinners among settlers in the hills of Judea and Samaria still work in their original jobs on the coastal plain or in Jerusalem.
As for the security of 20,000 settlers scattered among 700,000 arabs, Mr. Drobles argues that the settlers are trained and armed to defend themselves, and their location along a string of hilltops would allow them to ward off attack unti l reinforcements arrived.