Foreign lecturers at the four major West Bank universities - who make up appoximately one-fifth of the staff - may all be forced to leave the country.
The reason: They have refused to sign a declaration not to support the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) ''directly or indirectly.'' Over the last three months such a loyalty oath has been made a precondition for obtaining work permits for about 100 foreign faculty members.
So far 21 foreign faculty have been forced to leave, 19 of them Jordanian passport holders, including the president of Najah University in the West Bank's largest city, Nablus.
''This will make it very difficult for the universities to operate,'' said Dr. Gabi Baramki, president of Bir Zeit University, the best-known West Bank university, which has about 50 foreign staff out of 200. Two Bir Zeit foreign faculty were required by Israeli authorities to leave the country Nov. 15 - and 31 more, including 19 Americans, have been told they can no longer teach and will have to leave when their current visas expire.
The faculty issue is broader than the question of a loyalty oath. It points up a changing attitude on the part of Israeli authorities toward West Bank universities since Defense Minister Ariel Sharon instituted civil administration on the West Bank one year ago. It also marks a diametrically different assessment of the role of higher education institutions in the occupied territories by Israelis and Palestinians.
In private, some Israeli officials on the West Bank do not hide their regret that Israelis granted permits for the establishment of West Bank universities, which were not allowed under Jordan before 1968. These officials see the universities as hotbeds of political dissent against which previous Israeli West Bank military administrations were too lax.
Bir Zeit was closed down three times for a total of seven months during the last academic year for ''security reasons.'' University officials insist some of the incidents that led to closures were provoked by Israeli troops or Jewish West Bank settlers.
In December 1980 Israeli authorities issued Military Order 854, which attempted to tighten control over the universities by putting them under a Jordanian law governing secondary schools and adding permit requirements for faculty and staff. This order was recently suspended - in part because of pressure by concerned Israeli faculty and academics abroad.
Naomi Kies, a political science professor at Hebrew University, said at a press conference that sympathetic Israeli academics hope to gather 100 to 200 Israeli faculty signatures this week in opposition to the oath requirement.
Palestinians admit the universities are centers of political ferment - inevitable, they say, when students gather in an occupied land. But they see them also as key national and communal institutions. The number of foreign faculty is disproportionately high because many talented West Bankers educated abroad are unable to get Israeli work permits.
Israeli officials say that other governments require foreigners to sign declarations before entering their country. The foreign academics say the statement is redundant - their application for a work permit already requires a pledge to obey ''the laws of the land.''
The foreign staff argue that the declaration thrusts them into the political arena by forcing them to endorse the Israeli definition of the PLO as a ''hostile organization'' - although they work in territory with a status recognized by all their governments as disputed, and where many residents see the PLO as their spokesman.
''The principle we stand on is that there should be no interference in the academic community, said Peter Heath, an American PhD from Harvard University who coordinates Bir Zeit's program of cultural studies.
An Israeli spokesman for the West Bank civil administration responded: ''This has nothing to do with academic freedom. West Bank schools and universities are centers of a lot of PLO propaganda. This statement just brings to people's attention that working for the PLO is against the law.''