UNITED NATIONS, JAN. 14 -- The Security Council called on Israel today to permit the return of the four West Bank residents it deported yesterday, and to refrain from exiling any other Palestinian civilians from the occupied territories.

The United States, which voted for a resolution nine days ago that opposed the Israeli deportation policy, was alone among the 15 council members in abstaining this time. U.S. Ambassador Vernon A. Walters did, however, affirm that "we deeply regret the deportations that have taken place and we urge Israel to avoid further deportations."

The shift in Washington's voting, which was matched by a moderation of its rhetorical tone toward Israel, was hailed by the Israelis and provoked distress among the Arabs.

"Why this sudden change in the American position?" asked Palestine Liberation Organization representative Zehdi Terzi, who had accepted a softening of the wording of today's resolution in hopes of retaining the American vote. "Now that Israel has defied the U.N., why does the U.S. swallow it?"

Walters' response was: "We believe that repeatedly raising this issue does not assist the process of restoring calm to the territories or in addressing the problems that have contributed to the recent disturbances."

Privately, American officials said they were irked by PLO attempts to exploit the deportation issue beyond its significance.

Israeli Ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu said the American vote shift "tried to restore a sense of perspective and balance to an otherwise distorted and imbalanced proceeding. The Middle East is in flames but the council finds reason to convene twice in two weeks to criticize Israel for deporting four members of terrorist organizations -- two of them convicted killers -- for inciting riots."

{The four deported Palestinians were returned Thursday to the Israeli-controlled "security zone" in southern Lebanon by Lebanese Army troops, special correspondent Nora Boustany reported from Beirut. They were then taken to a base in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley by guerrillas of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a hard-line faction of the PLO.

{A Popular Front spokesman said the group acted only after the International Commitee for the Red Cross failed to provide assistance to the four deportees, who have officially been refused admittance by Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. He said the four men plan a sit-in at an ICRC office in the Bekaa Valley town of Ksara on Friday.}

Today's action was only an interim step by the Security Council, which is waiting for a report by Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, to be issued Wednesday. Arab foreign ministers are expected to discuss further actions in a prolonged council debate.

Among the ideas put forward is a U.N. peace-keeping presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At a press conference today Soviet Ambassador Alexander Belonogov said the U.N. role there should be strengthened.

Israel has always rejected the presence of U.N. peace-keeping troops on territory it controls, although the United Nations has for decades maintained a corps of military observers based in Jerusalem.