SINCE ruling alone in his caretaker government, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has lost no time in pushing forward with Jewish settlement in the occupied territories, a policy that angers Washington and the Arab world. The current occupation by 150 ultranationalist Jews at St. John's Hospice in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City has caught the most attention because of the tensions it has created both abroad and in the cramped, ancient walled city.
But both opponents and advocates of Jewish settlement say there is other evidence that Mr. Shamir's right-wing Likud Party is accelerating settlement in the territories seized by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. (Likud to form coalition, Page 6).
Israeli news media report daily the stages of new settlement - applications, fund-raising, groundbreakings. Jews recently moved into a satellite settlement east of Jerusalem, and plans are on the table to move more Jews into Hebron and Nablus, the West Bank's two largest cities.
Shamir, who has vowed to give up ``not one inch'' of occupied territory, embraces settlement. This was further confirmed by the last week's revelation that the Israeli government secretly funneled $1.8 million to help settlers buy a 10-year lease on the controversial Christian Quarter settlement around the corner from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Israel's Supreme Court ruled last week that all but 20 of the Jews must evacuate the Christian Quarter settlement by noon tomorrow. The court ruled in favor of eviction, at least temporarily, until a lower court decides a suit brought by the Greek Orthodox Church, which owns the hospice and claims the settlers sublet it illegally.
But the left-wing Labor Party in recent years has slowed the process of settlement, as part of its vision of making territorial concessions to the Arabs in exchange for a comprehensive peace treaty.
Left-leaning legislators, like Dede Zucker of the Citizens Rights Movement, charge that the Shamir government has seized upon the political crisis created when the left brought down the government in March to increase settlement activity.
Shimon Peres's Labor Party had shared power with Shamir's Likud in National Unity governments since 1984, and had managed to slow the activity. Labor, however, quit the coalition days before a no-confidence vote brought down the government, leaving Shamir as caretaker prime minister of a Likud-dominated Cabinet.
But Shamir's office said the interim government is simply fulfilling the guidelines of the 1988 coalition agreement, which provided for eight new settlements through 1992.
In the Gaza Strip last week, settlers parked five prefabricated homes at Dugit, the latest Jewish settlement in the territories.
Only six reserve soldiers live there now, standing guard. But five new Jewish families will soon join an estimated 2,900 settlers already living among 650,000 Palestinians in the impoverished 25-mile-long strip.
``What the national unity government didn't do for two years, this government did in two weeks,'' says Gaza settler Avi Farhan, an activist with the ultra-nationalist Tehiya Party, which is considered right of Likud. (With Labor leader Peres's admission that he could not form a left-leaning coalition, Tehiya is also a likely partner to help Shamir build a rightist coalition.)
Mr. Farhan said former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the No. 2 man in the Labor Party, had managed for two years to block permits to break ground at Dugit. Soon after Labor left the unity coalition, the settlement was cleared for groundbreaking.
A visit to Dugit last week found a bulldozer moving up and back between dunes, building a new road leading from the coast. The view from the middle of the tiny settlement is spectacular - dunes, acacia trees, greenhouses, and a breathtaking expanse of the Mediterranean Sea.
But the scene is deceptive. A 20-yard hike up a slight rise behind the empty homes reveals a far different view - the northern end of the sprawling, and fetid, Jabalia refugee camp. Home to 55,000 Palestinians, it is the largest such camp under Israeli occupation.
``This settlement is in one of the most densely populated places in the whole world,'' says Eran Hayet, a member of the leftist Peace Now movement. ``When the two big political parties were in the national unity government, we didn't have to worry as much about settlement. But now that it's a Likud government, who knows what will happen tomorrow.''
The Gush Emunim (Hebrew for ``Bloc of the Faithful'') settlers' movement sees the capture of the West Bank and Gaza as the fulfillment of a Biblical promise of a Greater Israel. Other settlers argue that Jewish communities in the occupied territories provide a civil defense line in case of attack.