The Israelis have launched a campaign in occupied-southern Lebanon to make the area into what amounts to a ''North Bank,'' according to Western diplomats and international agencies based in the south.
The plan is called Organization for a Unified South (OUS), and is based on the controversial ''village league'' system of the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Diplomats feel the OUS is aimed at establishing a permanent influence for the Israelis, even if they withdraw. It is to be done through two means:
* Administratively, the OUS calls for a ''village committee'' of five to eight men.
* Militarily, it plans for new militias of up to 60 men per community.
The Israelis reportedly have candidates for the main positions of both, which they are now attempting to foist on the predominant Shiite Muslims in the occupied zone, almost one-third of Lebanon.
Diplomats report a ''sudden urgency'' behind the Israeli campaign, which was outlined to local leaders at two meetings last week. They are also concerned about what appears to be intimidation against opponents of the Israeli plan.
Diplomats say the Israelis have threatened to impose outside militias on any village that refuses to join the OUS. There are also reports of what appears to be related detentions of vocal dissidents.
However, the Israelis are also providing incentives. They have told those with relatives being held by the Israelis at the Ansar detention camp near Sidon - some for more than six months - that the possibility of release will be higher if the OUS is accepted.
They have also pledged future economic and social assistance to ''village committees'' established in the estimated 200 hamlets in the craggy hills and wadis (river valleys) of the south.
The militias would be trained and armed by the Israelis, although the salaries (roughly $260 per month) would be paid from a new local tax.
Earlier attempts to establish miltias loyal to the Israelis, be- ginning shortly after Israel's June invasion, basically failed. In the area south of the Litani River, United Nations forces responded to appeals by residents to help disband the militias. The UN told militia leaders they would not allow armed men in uniform to move in the zone monitored by UN peacekeeping forces, in accordance with its mandate. Only two of 11 militias remain near the area.
International workers feel the timing of the Israeli plan is related to the US-directed negotiations on withdrawal of the Israeli, Syrian, and Palestinian forces from Lebanon. They say it appears the Israelis want avenues of political and military influence well- entrenched before they pull out.
The ''village committees'' would alter the traditional power structure in two ways: first they would usurp the role played in the past by the ''muktars,'' or local leaders. Secondly, they would symbolize a challenge to the US hope of returning ''sovereignty and territorial integrity'' to the government of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel.
The militias - which may be called either ''Guards of the South'' or the ''National Guard'' - would symbolize a threat to the goal of reestablishing the currently weak Lebanese. It would be difficult to disband a force which totalled between 5,000 and 12,000 men, the reported Israeli goal.
On a broader level, the scheme reflects the growing tension between the Israelis and Lebanese as the talks, now in the seventh week, have not made significant headway. There have also been some recent heated exchanges between the Israelis and the Phalange, their Christian allies in Lebanon and founded by the father of Lebanon's president.
Lebanese negotiators have stood firm in opposition to Israel's three main demands for withdrawal, which envoys here feel certain has led the Israelis to look for stronger alliances in the 45-kilometer ''security zone'' north of Israel's border.
The emphasis on militias serves a secondary function while the Israelis remain in the Lebanon: local security. Throughout the region it occupies, the Israeli Defense Force has come under increasingly regular attack, to the point that it now averages out to almost one Israeli casualty per day. Local militiamen might be more effective in snuffing out guerrillas or saboteurs, since they are more familiar with the terrain, language, and residents.
It is still not clear, however, how successful the Israeli scheme will be. There has been general resistance among the muktars, according to international workers. One commented: ''It is hard to predict. I don't know how long the muktars can resist. They have no cards to play.'' He pointed out that the Lebanese government had done nothing to help southern residents, responding instead with ''surprising silence'' and ''total passivity.''
The first session to formalize the OUS was held Sunday in Qlaile at a local mosque guarded by Israeli troops. An Israeli major, who called himself ''Abu Tamara,'' was the main speaker, although a southern Lebanese businessman was elected as chairman.
Only eight muktars were reported to have attended, leading Western envoys to say it indicated a lack of widespread support. The Jerusalem Post said some 800 local residents turned out.
In Beirut, a prominent Shiite Muslim leader, Nabih Berri, pledged that his forces in the so-called Amal movement would confront any new pro-Israeli militia formed in the south.
Mr. Berri's threat coincided with a clash in the coastal village of Al Ghaziyeh between Amal forces and the newly-formed National Guard of Lebanon. Both are made up of Shiites, and marked the first case of internal fighting within that sect of Islam in Lebanon, as well as an ominous sign for the Israeli plan.