Israel has been exerting economic and political pressure on the West Bank since the invasion of Lebanon to consolidate its hold there and to increase the number of local Palestinian figures willing to publicly back Israeli plans for the area's future.
These efforts reflect Israeli awareness that once the war in Lebanon is over, United States and world attention will focus on a political solution for the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Ironically, Israeli efforts to unearth a more accommodating Palestinian leadership come as many established West Bank leaders are expressing support for the reported willingness of the Palestine Liberation Organization to accept the concept of mutual recognition with Israel.
The Israeli push is focused on villages like Asira Shamaliya, a cluster of stone and concrete buildings housing about 5,000 persons. It is nestled on a rise in a valley six miles north of the city of Nablus and is surrounded by silver-green olive groves.
Such villages, which include 70 percent of the West Bank's population, are seen by Israel as more conservative than the cities and towns, where 8 out of 24 elected mayors have been dismissed this year. Three have been dismissed since the invasion of Lebanon.
Asira Shamaliya is the home of Jawdat Shawalha, head of the newest of six Village Leagues on the West Bank. The rural associations are formed, funded, and armed by Israel as a way to outflank urban nationalist Palestinian leadership. The leagues distribute a newpaper printed in Tel Aviv, which arrives unsolicited by mail at the offices of some West Bank opponents of the league.
Israeli officials argue that the leagues contain genuine anti-PLO ''moderates ,'' who are emerging now because they no longer fear assassination by the beleaguered PLO. But nearly every well-known West Bank figure - from traditional to radical - denies that these are authentic leaders.
''The Israelis can't find anyone respectable for the leagues,'' a West Bank intellectual says, ''because they (the Israelis) can offer nothing; no land, no freeze on Jewish settlements, no end to occupation.''
Until two weeks after the invasion of Lebanon, Israel had been unable to find members for a league in the Nablus area, a traditional bastion of Palestinian nationalism. But, say West Bankers, a series of economic and political pressures has been used to enlarge league membership since the war, while crimping activities of neighboring towns.
Abu Hani, mayor since 1965 of the village of Sarra, which refused to join the Nablus league, said he and his town councilors were summoned to Israeli military headquarters in Nablus in mid-June. ''They explained about the benefits of entering the league,'' he said. ''They said that our agricultural and water projects would be funded. Then they threatened that if we refused, we'd be kicked out of the council and get no projects approved.''
Since his village refused, says Abu Hani, residents have been denied all official documents necessary to West Bank life: permits to cross the Jordan River to the Arab world, renewal of identity cards, building permits, birth certificates, etc. Abu Hani was summoned three times for 10-hour sessions of questioning by Israeli officials.
During the war in Lebanon there have been violent clashes in several West Bank villages between armed league members (other West Bankers are forbidden to possess weapons) and villagers who oppose them. Eight persons were injured on July 25 in two such incidents.
Asked about Israeli pressure, Jawdat Shawalha said, ''maybe this was one reason'' he formed the Nablus area league. When first contacted, he said: ''I have to ask the Israeli military if I can talk.'' Later he agreed to an interview.
Sitting in his apartment above a newly plastered league office, where expensive chandeliers still sat in their boxes, Jawdat said the league was needed to provide ''a link between the Israeli military and the people.'' A graduate of a legal correspondence course and father of eight children, Mr. Shawalha now runs an office in Nablus where four employees help him process all applications from area villagers for permits from the Israeli authorities. It is a function formerly performed by mayors and local council heads.
He says most villages in the Nablus area have joined his league; other Nablus area residents disagree.
Mr. Shawalha denied West Bank rumors that Village League leaders were being groomed to accept Israel's version of limited adminstrative rule for the West Bank. ''I cannot accept because it would be from one side, the side of the Jews, '' he said. When asked if he feared the PLO, Shawalha complained, ''The PLO doesn't have a clear picture about the leagues. I am a friend of the PLO.''
Despite repeated inquiries, no comment was available from the spokesman for the Israeli civil administration of the occupied territories.
As membership in the leagues increases, economic pressure is being applied to former West Bank mayors and to municipal officials. Former Nablus Mayor Bassam Shaka, who was deposed in March 1982, says his merchant family's exports of soap and olive oil have been blocked, as have bank credits on imports. His house is guarded constantly and an Israeli jeep follows him everywhere - soldiers write down the name of every visitor.
A similar export ban was applied against the orange crop of recently deposed mayor Rashad Shawa of Gaza, who says his losses total $450,000 this season.
Since the first day of the Lebanon war, West Bank municipalities have been banned from bringing in money from Arab countries, the mainstay of their budget, unless they deposit the money in an Israeli-controlled development fund. ''What Arab country would give money under these conditons?''
In Bethlehem, Mayor Elias Freij bitterly said, ''The money would go to the Village Leagues, not to the municipalities.''