In the crucible of the ''Holy Land,'' with religious, cultural, and political struggles one atop the other, any alteration of the status quo is of enormous importance.
This is why Israel's move this week to annex the Golan Heights is causing a worldwide uproar. Aside from its considerable international ramifications, the move:
* Decrees Israel's first outright consolidation of captured territory since 1967. That was when Israel annexed east Jerusalem.
* Gives the 10,000 Jewish settlers in the Golan coverage by Israeli civil law , thus tossing out Syrian law, the last vestige of Syrian government in territory once belonging to it.
* Sets a precedent for what is believed to be the more-slowly-building - but much more important - annexation of the West Bank.
Under the new law rushed through the Knesset (parliament) this week, a dispute between an Israeli settler, for example, and an Arab Druze inhabitant of the Golan would be heard in an Israeli civilian court under Israeli law. Previously such a dispute would have come under Syrian law, although it would still have been under the ultimate control of an Israeli military tribunal if ''security'' were at stake.
International law holds that the military occupier (Israel) allow the extant government agencies and courts (Syrian) to continue their functions on civil matters. By extending Israeli civil law over the Golan, Israel in effect advances from military occupation of the territories to annexation.
International law, in the form of the 1949 Geneva Convention and the charter of the United Nations, prohibits this.
''Conquest has ceased to constitute a mode of acquisition of territory since the general prohibition on recourse to force,'' the UN charter states. Israel is a member of the UN.
Israeli officials in the past have recognized that ''legal status'' of the Golan, West Bank, and Gaza ''remained that of a territory occupied as a result of war.'' But they have long argued that ''Israel does not consider itself an occupier since the land was seized in a defensive effort.''
That argument was never made by Israel when it annexed the eastern half of Jerusalem in 1967. Israeli officials almost without exception see an ''undivided Jerusalem'' as Israel's bibically mandated capital.
Arab governments and the world at large, however, do not accept the Israeli view. But Jerusalem is considered the most difficult point of negotiation in any future Arab-Israeli bargaining.
''It will be a tough fight,'' a high-level US State Department official said recently, ''but ultimately the question centers on Jerusalem.''
Meanwhile, Israel considers Jerusalem as coming fully under Israeli law. One of the great fears among Palestinian intellectuals today is that Israel is slowly moving toward doing to the West Bank what it has just done to the Golan.
The West Bank is controlled by an Israeli military government in ''security'' matters, but otherwise the 700,000 Palestinians in this part of the Israeli-occupied territories come under Jordanian civil law and decrees from the King of Jordan which were in effect before 1967. In the Gaza strip, pre-1967 Egyptian law is in effect. In many cases, this Arab law is simply an updated form of laws in effect during the pre-1948 British mandate over Palestine.
In some ways it has been easier for Israel to hold the West Bank and Gaza from a legal point of view than the Golan. In the West Bank, Israel simply took the place of the Jordanian military occupation administration (though Jordan argues that it never ''imposed'' military occupation between 1948 and 1967 but entered the West Bank after a 1950 resolution in the Jordanian parliament resulted in a ''union'' between West and East banks). In Gaza, Israel similarly replaced Egyptian military authorities.
But the lines of demarcation between military and civilian, Israeli and Arab jurisdiction have become blurred over the past 14 years. This is primarily because Israeli military judges and some Arab judges have broadly construed ''security'' as relating to cases involving land, water rights, municipalities, labor, taxation, and customs. Property disputes between Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Arabs already living there often go in favor of the paramilitary settlers on security grounds.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank and in Beirut point to this trend as ''creeping annexation'' of the West Bank. The annexation of the Golan underscores their argument.