THE ISRAELIS have the land and the power in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians have a grievance -- the 20-year occupation -- and, by virtue of a month's demonstrations, at least the temporary attention of an international public. Mostly by chance, it seems, residents and especially the young stumbled on a new tactic. In front of foreign television crews, crowds throw stones and sometimes use other weapons against Israeli soldiers, whose responses, including beatings and shootings (more than 30 Palestinians have died), are often caught on film. Israel has been pummeled in world opinion and criticized in three resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. The third, enacted 14-0 Thursday with the United States abstaining, challenged Israel's expulsion -- forbidden under international law -- of four Palestinians identified as perpetrators or organizers of violent resistance.
The issue of fairness is crucial here: press fairness, political fairness. Is it fair to criticize Israel for military measures incidental to restoration of order in situations where the provocation is extreme? For acts of repression that, when conducted by others on a larger scale or as a state policy (Syria's slaughter of 15,000 of its citizens at Hama), draw minimal rebuke? For a West Bank occupation that is in some ways more liberal to Palestinians than most Arab regimes are to their own citizens and for a Gaza occupation that rests on a cynical Arab decision to keep refugees in squalid camps? For a territorial status that arose from a war generated by Arabs in 1967 and that goes on in part because of a continuing Arab refusal to sit down and make peace? For a policy that, for all of its regrettable aspects, remains the choice of a country that is democratic, open and friendly to the United States?
We don't claim that the press, politicians and diplomats have been fair in every particular in the latest siege. But the general thrust of the criticism does seem to us fair. In the West Bank and Gaza, Israelis rule over a million-plus unwilling Palestinians. The requirement for statesmen is to devise ways for Israel to unload this burden without putting itself at new, larger risk. Half of Israel is prepared to look for a way. It so happens that the party representing the other half currently runs the government, and its acts and attitudes are what dismay Israel's American friends, whose deep, much-proven regard for Israel is not inconsistent with attention to the West Bank's grief. This is part of fairness too.
For the United States, the point is not simply to move beyond the recent stiffness in Israeli-American relations. It is to recognize that the root problem is not how Israel runs an occupation but that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has been left to fester. On view in the West Bank is the debris of a tragedy to which the Reagan administration has contributed by its failure to help move this dispute toward settlement. Few need reminding of the complexity of the task. After the events of the past month, few should need reminding of its urgency.