Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank have served as a ''psychological . . . hothouse for the growth of Jewish terror'' in the opinion of the former head of Israel's domestic intelligence service, Avraham Ahituv.
In a highly controversial interview which has been sharply criticized by top government officials, Mr. Ahituv says ''there is serious suspicion,'' though no decisive proof, that Jews were involved in the recent machine-gun hit-and-run murders of three Arab students on the Hebron Islamic University campus on the West Bank, as well as in the car-bomb attacks that crippled two Arab mayors in June 1980.
He said, ''There is no justification'' for the Israeli government's failure until now to apprehend those who attacked the mayors. Ahituv was head of Israel's domestic General Security Services (known as the Shin Bet) when the mayors were attacked. He resigned not long thereafter. The Shin Bet is the Israeli version of the US FBI. A Time Magazine report later alleged that his departure was due to unhappiness at government reluctance to vigorously pursue the search for the mayors' attackers within the Jewish settlers' community.
Government officials denied this charge, and other Israeli sources, while confirming Ahituv's unhappiness on this issue, said it was not the primary reason for his departure.
In the interview in the daily Davar, Ahituv seemed to be defending the Shin Bet against charges that it had not pursued charges against Jewish terrorists on the West Bank with enough vigor. He blamed ''the political environment around them'' which, he said, ''protects them.''
Ahituv wrote that as settlements began to spring up on the West Bank, Jews ''took the law into their own hands . . . sometimes through explicit . . . confrontation with the Israeli Defense Forces.'' Ahituv contended that, especially since the coming to power of the current Likud government, settlers had learned that their actions, even if illegal, ''were eventually sanctioned'' because the government was politically sympathetic to their aims.
Such attitudes on the home front, Ahituv argued, made it very difficult for intelligence authorities to gather information on Jewish underground groups in the occupied territories. Feeling that they were supported on ''the home front, '' suspects would be unlikely to open up to or cooperate with the authorities.
Ahituv confirmed press reports about the difficulty that law enforcement officials have in collecting evidence against suspects from within the Jewish West Bank settler community. ''After the attack on the mayors, a hysteria of caution and avoidance of any contact with security personnel began in Kiryat Arba,'' he wrote, referring to the largest and one of the most militant Jewish settlement towns. Kiryat Arba is located near Hebron.
A closed trial is under way of two Kiryat Arba municipal employees charged with destroying a bomb an electrician found hidden in the wall of the town offices. It was wrapped in newspaper dated the day before the bombing of the mayors.
Ahituv's article was roundly condemned by prominent Kiryat Arba lawyer Elyakim Ha'etzni, who charged it was ''a threat to the security of the state.'' Mr. Ha'etzni charged that the former Shin Bet chief was a Labor Party supporter whose words were politically motivated. Several government ministers called for legal action against Mr. Ahituv for using information obtained while serving in state office, but Prime Minister Menachem Begin, while also critical, said the issue should be left to the attorney general.
The Ahituv bombshell came shortly after an article in the left-leaning weekly Koteret Rashit, which alleged that the Shin Bet knew the exact identities of those who bombed the mayors, including a reserve officer in a voluntary battle unit, but did not have sufficient hard proof to obtain an indictment.