Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's strategy of swapping the return of Sinai to Egypt for eventual Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza is facing its first major storm.
And this a full month before Israel is due to complete its final withdrawal from the last strip of Sinai April 25.
The immediate cause of the upsurge of trouble is an acceleration of the Israeli effort to root out the influence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on the West Bank. The Israelis see this as a prerequisite for any annexation.
Overall, the Begin strategy is being challenged on several different fronts by:
* Continued demonstrations and strikes by West Bank Palestinians. Two Palestinian youths have been shot and killed by Israeli troops during the past four days of disturbances, one on March 20 and the other on March 22.
* A call from Syria for a United Nations Security Council meeting to consider the present West Bank situation.
* A warning from Jordan that ''tame'' Palestinians recruited by Israel to cooperate in its West Bank annexation plan were liable to be charged with treason under Jordanian law. The charge carries a maximum penalty of capital punishment -- although Jordan, which ran the West Bank from 1948 till the 1967 Arab-Israel war, could not enforce it.
* An upgrading of the weaponry in the hands of the PLO in southern Lebanon during the ceasefire that has been in effect there since last summer.
* A firm stand by the Egyptians against any move in dealings with Israel which might be seen as acquiescence in Israel's plans to tighten its hold on the West Bank -- especially just before the April 25 Sinai hand-over.
What has produced this general increase in tension?
With the approach of April 25, Palestinians and other Arabs seem convinced that if something is not done now, they will be faced eventually with the fait accompli of Israel's annexation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Commenting on Mr. Begin's long-term policy aim in the current issue of Foreign Policy, Shlomo Avineri of Hebrew University and director-general of his country's Foreign Ministry 1976-77, writes:
The Prime Minister ''carefully crafted the [Camp David Palestinian] autonomy plan into a sophisticated instrument through which to achieve a gradual integration of the West Bank and Gaza into Israel proper.
''Begin's explicit, albeit low-key statements during the Knesset debate over the Camp David accords that after the five-year transition period Israel 'shall claim (its) sovereign rights' were at the time overlooked by many observers in the euphoria of Camp David's telegenic embraces.''
Since Mr. Begin's winning of a second term in the premiership last year, his long-term aim of annexing the West Bank and Gaza has become increasingly apparent:
First, he appointed a hard-line team to serve in cabinet posts involved with the occupied territories - Yitzhak Shamir at the Foreign Ministry, Ariel Sharon at the Defense Ministry, and Yosef Burg at the Interior Ministry.
Second, Defense Minister Sharon -- whose ministry has run the occupied territories since their seizure in the six-day war of 1967 -- decided to put the West Bank under a civilian administrator, Menahem Milson, a hard-line Israeli Arabist and Army reserve colonel from the Hebrew University. This was interpreted by Palestinians as a step toward incorporating the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria as the Israelis call it) into a civilian-run Israel.
Third, the Israeli authorities encouraged the establishment of ''village leagues'' among the rural Palestinian population of the West Bank. These leagues were seen by the Israelis as a possible alternative to the elected West Bank mayors for a dialogue on the future of the territory. The mayors have refused such a dialogue.
Fourth, last year the Israelis began arming and subsidizing the villages. At the same time, they prohibited the mayors from receiving funds from Jordan -- a practice allowed from 1967 until last year. Mustafa Dudin, a village league leader from Hebron who has permanent armed Israeli protection, said Mr. Begin had promised the leagues $6 million this year.
Fifth, the Israeli authorities again closed Bir Zeit University on the West Bank, seen by them as a hotbed of PLO influence among young people.
Sixth, Defense Minister Sharon outlawed the West Bank Palestinians' National Guidance Committee, described by the Jerusalem Post as ''the unofficial coordination body of the pro-PLO forces in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.'' The newspaper then added that the ban on the committee is ''seen by some observers as the first step toward removing from office those mayors associated with (it) who have boycotted the civil administration since its inception in November.''
Last week, one of these mayors, Ibrahim Tawil of El Bireh, renewed his refusal to meet with civilian administrator Milson. The Israeli authorities responded by dissolving the El Bireh town council and replacing Mr. Tawil with an Israeli Army officer.
It was that that started the latest wave of West Bank protests and strikes.