To the Israelis, they are mortal enemies -- violent, desperate people prone to vicious terrorism and determined to destroy the Jewish state that was carved out of Palestine in the aftermath of the World War II holocaust.

But, to their Arab brethren, they are victims of a historic injustice that has bitterly ironic parallels to the Jewish Diaspora of an earlier age -- a talented, hard-working folk driven from their homeland and forced to wander in permanent exile.

These are the starkly contrasting views the opposing sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict have of the approximately 3.5 million Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or who are scattered elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond.

In the last three decades, four major regional wars and countless skirmishes have been fought over the Palestinian issue. Even now, at a time when the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord has raised the first real hope of resolving the conflict, the question of the Palestinians and their future remains the principal barrier to bringing the rest of the Arab world into the peace proscess.

That fact will be underscored anew today when -- unless U.S. diplomatic maneuvering succeeds in bringing about a postponement -- the United Nations Security Council begins a debate on the rights of the Palestinians to an independent state.

In its broad outlines, the debate probably will focus on the status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, two noncontiguous territories captured by Israel from Jordan and Egypt, respectively, during the lightning war of 1967. Since then, the (word illegible) million Palestinians in these areas have lived under Israeli military rule.

Increasingly, a vague international consensus -- shared in some degree by all the parties involved -- has formed the idea that the problem can be solved by creating a "Palestinian homeland" or "entity."

But no one has found a way to make the leap from such vague words as "homeland" and "entity" to defining what they mean in practical terms.

Most of the Arab world insists it must mean, at the least, a fully independent state controlled by no one but the Palestinians. But that idea is rejected categorically by the Israelis, who see such a state as inevitably becoming a hostile, radical-controlled "dagger pointed at the heart of Israel."

For their part, the Israelis would like to see the West Bank and Gaza remain, directly or indirectly, under their control, with some measure of limited, internal self-government for the Palestinian inhabitants. That in turn, is scorned by the Arabs as an Israeli attempt to create a "Palestinian Bantustan" on the order of South Africa's much-condemned puppet black homelands.

Other proposals have called for rejoining the West Bank to Jordan or giving the territories a status that would make them independent in some respects and tied to both Israel and Jordan in others. But none have met with the approval of Israel, of the Arab countries or of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the faction-ridden umbrella organization that is the dominat spokesman for the Palestinian cause.

Even if an agreement could be reached about the West Bank and Gaza, there is no guarantee that it would put an end to the Palestinian problem. These are small, resource-poor areas only marginally able to support their present populations and incapable of taking in the more than 2 million Palestinians living elsewhere.

Many, if not most, of the Palestinians in other countries spurn the idea of resettling in a new "homeland" and cling to the dream of returning to the homes that they or their fathers once had in what is now Israel. Even if they could be induced to change their minds, there is the danger that a big infusion of people into the new entity would turn it into an economic basket case whose poverty would only inject new tensions into the turbulent Middle East.

The roots of this situation go back to 1948 when the Arab world defied the U.N. attempt to partition Palenstine into separate Jewish and Arab states and launced an unsuccessful war to wipe out Israel at the moment of its birth. In the course of the fighting, millions of Arabs fled the Jewish-controlled areas of the country.

The Israelis maintain the Palestinians left on orders from Arab leaders, who promised that they could return as soon as the Jews had been eliminated. The Arabs counter that the Palensinians were driven away by Jewish brutality and death threats.

More impartial examinations of the historical record suggest that there is truth in both allegations. But, whatever the cause, the result was to create a massive refugee situation that became further complicated when the 1967 war brought the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Israeli control.

Elsewhere, there are an estimated 1 million Palestinians in Jordan, 400,000 in Lebanon, 250,000 in Syria, 250,000 in Kuwait (where they account for nearly a quarter of the population), 50,000 in Saudia Arabia and another 250,000 scattered throughout the Persian Gulf States, Europe and the United States.

Wherever they are, most have continued to echo the Arabic rallying cry of "Ai qadhieh al-Filestinieh," which means "the Palestinian cause" and which is their common denominator of brotherhood, nationalism and wounded pride.

Inevitably, "the cause" means different things to different people. There are the diehards who still nurture the old vengeful dream of "driving Israel into the sea." There are the more moderate Palestinians who call for replacing Israel with a secular state of Moslems, Jews and Christians. And there are the pragmatists who would settle for a separate state created out of the occupied territories.

Since the late 1960's, the main institutional framework for these diverse schools of thought has been the PLO. The accommodation of so many different refugee factions gives it the strength to speak for the Palestinians in Arab world councils but also frequently prevents it from achieving consensus necessary to pursue its cause effectively.

As a result, although the PLO has considerable support within the Third World, its image in the United States and Western Europe has been shaped largely by the tendency of some of its factions to use terrorism as a weapon against Israel and other enemies.

To most people in the western world, the term "Palestinian" probably automatically conjures up a picture of the PLO's principal leader, Yasser Arafat -- a kaffiyeh on his head, a pistol strapped to his side, his face unshaven and his voice rising in shrill denunication of Zionism and imperialism.

The reality is that the Palestinians are a far more diverse people. Even in exile, they include a thriving middle class with the highest levels of literacy and academic achievement in the Arab world, frequently forming the professional and bureaucratic backbone of the countries in which they now live.

They also include a vast proletariat, living in refugee camps or the slums of Arab cities, that provides a pool of cheap labor for countries such as Jordan and Syria and, in the case of the occupied territories, for Israel. Some seem beaten and resigned, but others remain stubbornly difiant and form the mercurial constituencies that give the PLO the strength to keep Palestinian nationalism a major issue in the Arab world.

Wherever they live and whatever their position on the social scale, the Palestinians usually have found their relationship with their host countries uncomfortable. Other Arabs may feel compelled in the name of brotherhood to support their cause, but they resent the presence of large numbers of Palestinians in their midst, and these resentments frequently have erupted into bloodshed.

Once-prosperous Lebanon literally has been torn apart in the civil war precipitated by the presence of Palestinian guerrilla forces. In 1970, Jordan's King Hussein felt so threatened by the growing power of the PLO in his country that he unleashed his army in a wholesale slaughter of Palestinian militias.

At the time, Syria almost provoked a U.S. intervention in the region by dispatching a tank column against Jordan. Yet, six years later, Syrian President Hafez Assad sent his tanks to blast Palestinian forces frustrating his policies in Lebanon.

Still, despite the tendency of the Palestinians to be a disruptive force -- or perhaps because of it -- support for their cause remains strong in every Arab country. Even Egyptian President Anwar Sadat justifies his negotiations with Israel as a way to obtain a solution for the Palestinians.

This coninued support stems from many factors: fears by conservative Arab leaders of Palestinian radicalism, inability to ignore their sheer numbers and, probably most important, the Arab world's identification of the Palestinian struggle with its memories of colonialism and resentment of western influence in the Middle East.

That is why even the moderate Arab states have stood aside from the Mideast peace process and have continued to brandish their oil as a potential weapon against the West if the Pasetinian question is not resolved.

All of these elements almost certainly will swirl to the surface in the upcoming U.N. debate. if it ends as expected -- with the United States forced to veto a pro-Palestinian resolution -- the result is likely to be a chain reaction of new tensions under-scoring that there can be no comprehensive peace in the Middle East without a settlement of the Palestinian question.