Even most pro-Israel members of the House International Relations Committee scarcely believed their ears Sept. 12 when a scholarly witness praised Israel's mushrooming settlements on the West Bank as "an important contributor to the region's well-being and to the fostering of better relations" between Jew and Arab.

In President Carter's view, no issue has so poisoned relations between the United States and Israel as Prime Minister Menahem Begin's claim to the entire West Bank of the Jordan River as "liberated" lands that belong to Israel, with an inherent Israeli right to plant settlements.

Far from "fostering better relations" with the 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who live on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the Jewish settlements are officially labeled by the Carter administration as "obstacles" to peace. The settlements, furthermore, are clearly "illegal" under various international conventions. So it might be expected that members of the human-rights and Mideast subcommittees of the International Affairs Committee would hear some Arab spokesmen when they conducted the Sept. 12 hearing on legal and human-rights aspects of the Israeli settlements.

They did not. Nor were the congressmen aware of an essential fact when they heard Fred Gottheil, a professor at the University of Illinois, express those remarkable views about Jewish settlements. The fact: He had been picked as a witness by staff of the two subcommittees at the express request of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.

AIPAC, which is run by Morris J. Amitay, is Washington's most important and effective pro-Israel lobbying group. Its roots run deep into the political soil of both the House and Senate and its network of political and public relations contacts extends to every major American city.

AIPAC and other political arms of the American Jewish community did not want any hearings at all on the politically combustible issue of West Bank settlements. Rep. Edward Derwinski of Illinois, ranking Republican on the human-rights subcommittee (headed by Rep. Don Fraser of Minnesota), sought to block the hearings altogether.

Calling the subject "explosive," Derwinski said public hearings might complicate" Carter's Mideast peace plans at a delicate moment in the negotiations. Fraser and Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, chairman of the Mideast subcommittee, disagreed. But the political courage implicit in their decision to move ahead with hearings filled with political boobytraps was overshadowed by extraordinary kowtowing of their staffs to the pro-Israel lobby.

Not only was AIPAC permitted to "recommend" at least one witness (Gottheil), but moreover the decision was made to veto all testimony from any Palestinian or Arab American witness. Considering the fact that the Sept. 12 hearing related only to the human rights and the legal issues of Jewish settlements in Arab Palestine, the refusal to take testimony from Palestinian Arabs seems surprising.

What made this especially frustrating to the largely unorganized American Arab community was the futility of their efforts to change that committee decision. The Arab Americans were denied the same chance to propose witnesses that the committee gave AIPAC. The record is slightly chilling.

A staff aide of Sen James Abourezk (D-S.D.), the Senate's only Arab American, was secretly informed by a House committee staffer in June that the hearings were being planned for September. He informed the Middle East Research Center, an Arab American can lobby. It privately requested the staff of Fraser's subcommittee to consider taking testimony from Abdeen Jabara, a prominent Detroit lawyer and leader in the Arab American community.

Some two months later, near the end of August, the Middle East Research Center was told by the Fraser subcommittee staff that regrettably, there was no place for any Arab witness recommended by the Arab American lobby, Jarbara included.

Gottheil, picked to testify by Amitay's AIPAC, was joined by Raymond Tanter, a professor at the University of Michigan, who spent five years in Israel as a visiting professor at Hebrew University and who was also approved by AIPAC. Tanter's testimony, though certainly reflecting his own conviction, was virtually indistinguishable from pronouncements by the Israeli foreign office.

"Contrary to propaganda claims of violations of human rights," Tanter testified, "Israel's occupation (of the West Bank) has served to broaden human rights . . .(The) net effect of the occupation . . .is positive."

That novel reading of Israel's colonization of the West Bank and other Arab lands seized in the 1967 war brought a low-key repsonse from Paul Quiring, an experienced Mennonite social worker who has helped West Bank Palestinians on relief projects since the 1967 war. Taking a pro-Arab position, he said: "It strikes me as odd that the construction of Israeli settlements could improve human-rights conditions without the (Palestinian) people being aware of it." That is no odder than the hearing itself.