With their latest measures on the occupied West Bank, the Israelis are hurrying to effect a 180-degree turn in the political complexion of the region's 800,000-strong Arab community. They are trying to wrest leadership of that community from the municipal leaders who emerged in 1976 from the first democratic elections the territory has ever known, and to bestow it instead on a rag-tag collection of their own clients, organized in the new ''Village Leagues.''
The Israelis are acting thus in such a way as to render irrelevant any discussion of the ''Palestinian autonomy'' to which the United States (along with Israel and Egypt) remains committed under the Camp David accords.
And the Israelis appear to be in a hurry. The pace of their measures on the West Bank is accelerating as April 25, date of their scheduled final withdrawal from Sinai, approaches.
It is only four months since the new Israeli policy in the West Bank was signaled in earnest by the introduction of a ''civilian'' Israeli administration there.
West Bank Arabs were alerted by that signal from the beginning. Instead of implying a lightening of the burdens imposed by the direct military rule which preceded it, they saw it as presaging further moves toward the de facto annexation of the territory to 1948 Israel.
The new ''civilian'' administration still rules West Bank Arabs through the previous military regulations, and many of its personnel are still the same (except they wear civilian clothes to work now). But the ''civilian'' administrators moved fast to undercut the local municipal leaders by cutting off their main source of funds - Arab aid channeled through a PLO-Jordanian joint committee in Amman.
At the same time, they gave enormous facilities, wide administrative powers, and even light weaponry to leaders of the Village Leagues which they themselves cobbled together from scratch.
Some of the vast majority of West Bankers who still remain overwhelmingly loyal to their elected leaders at first dismissed Village League personnel as ''drug dealers, thieves, and petty collaborators.'' The only recognizable personality among them is Mustafa Dudeen, a veteran political adventurer who once (long before 1967) sought refuge in Cairo as a Nasserist sympathizer and was later Jordan's ambassador to Kuwait.
West Bank professional people reject the common Israeli description of Village Leaguers as ''moderates.'' They see them as Quislings hired to implement and police the nuts and bolts of the Israeli policy of annexing the West Bank.
When armed League convoys started parading in West Bank villages, some bitter West Bankers even likened them to the Jewish ''Kapos'' used to keep order in Nazi concentration camps.
More than 35 percent of West Bank land is now under direct Israeli ownership, with much of it settled by militant settlers who have become increasingly bold, under Begin, in their offensive actions against the Arab communities.
The vast majority of West Bank Palestinians now consider that Israeli policy toward them consists of two prongs:
* Official administrative measures against land ownership and local institutions seek to curtail all prospects of finding an independent local livelihood.
* The daily actions of the settlers meanwhile aim at terrorizing West Bankers to leave their ancestral homes and villages.
With the West Bank more completely Arabrein (free of Arabs), West Bankers say , it would be easier for Israel formally to annex the area without incurring a large non-Jewish population.
Already, approximately 200,000 Palestinians -- one-fifth of the previous West Bank population -- have left the area since 1967, according to American Quaker officials active in the region. The PLO and Jordan, which both claim interests in the area, have sunk their differences in recent years to try to staunch that flow.
Jordan's interest dates back to the action of King Hussein's grandfather, who formally annexed the West Bank to his own Kingdom after the fighting surrounding the 1948 establishment of Israel in part of pre-World War II Palestine. (Egypt likewise kept control of the Gaza Strip, though without formal annexation.)
King Hussein was able to retain a network of West Bank personalities loyal to him even after the 1967 Israeli occupation. But a majority of West Bankers turned their loyalty to the purely Palestinian organizations which grew up after 1967. And the mayors who were elected in 1976 publicly announced their loyalty to the PLO.
These elected leaders were never enthusiastic about Camp David's provisions for Palestinian autonomy:
* They said it would leave them with fewer local powers even than the Bantustans repudiated by the world community as mere puppet administrations for the South African government.
* They considered that Begin's insistence that autonomy applied only to the people and not to the land, water or other resources of the West Bank could open the way directly to Israeli annexation; and
* Even as the Camp David process continued, they saw additional Jewish settlements springing up ever closer to their own population centers.
To the West Bankers' own rejection of the Camp David autonomy provisions was added that of the Jordanian government and the PLO -- thus virtually assuring the autonomy negotiations could never get off the ground.
The Arab parties concerned (including Egypt) have always felt extremely bitter that the United States never even signaled its commitment to the process by insisting on a halt to further Israeli settlement activities in the occupied territories. President Carter, while in office, expressed his opposition to the continued growth of the settlements, but never translated this into concrete sanctions against Israel. President Reagan, however, came into office considering the Israeli settlements quite legal (contrary to the provisions of international law). The West Bankers thus begin to despair of any international action to save them from such as Rabbi Meir Kahane, the Zionist extremist who argues openly for expelling all West Bank Arabs -- and carries a gun as an Israeli Army reservist in West Bank towns.
''We are all hostages here,'' says one West Banker. ''The only difference between hijacking a plane and hijacking territory is the number of hostages involved - say 50 as opposed to over a million.''