ONCE again the Israelis cry foul. In 1982 the Likud government of Menachem Begin invaded Lebanon, sought to install a friendly regime in Beirut, misrepresented its military and political objectives, and wound up with the massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps on its conscience. Yet the word from Jerusalem, dutifully echoed in journals like Commentary and The New Republic, was that the Israelis themselves had been victimized by a biased if not anti-Semitic press. Now it is American television that has allegedly distorted recent happenings on the Gaza Strip and West Bank. ``These are rioters, not demonstrators,'' complains Avi Pasner, spokesman for Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of the Likud. ``I have yet to see one scene of Palestinians throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails that endanger the lives of our soldiers.''
The claim is false, as any viewer of American television these past few weeks can attest. But Mr. Pasner - who served in Israel's Washington embassy long enough to become a die-hard Redskins fan - apparently hopes that by generating a fuss he can make the networks back off. Once the disturbances go into remission, television will be more inclined to forget the root causes of the problem. The message of Gaza will have been forgotten.
That message is that only a settlement of the Palestinian question in all its dimensions will bring internal and external peace to Israel.
This time the riots were an internal affair, triggered by a traffic accident in Gaza. There was no outside instigation, no convenient public figure to blame, such as a Yasser Arafat, Hafez Assad, or Imam Khomeini. Distressingly for Israel, the era in which residents of the occupied territories awaited deliverance by the PLO, the Arab oil weapon, the US, or King Hussein may be merging with one in which they themselves take the lead.
No less a signal was the solidarity of Palestinians inside Israel's ``green line'' with their brethren in the territories. This is one of the fruits of the 1967 occupation which, given population trends, could have ominous long-term implications for Israel.
True, Gaza is a special case. Unlike the rather prosperous West Bank with its large indigenous population, Gaza is packed with refugees and the descendants of refugees forced from their homes inside Israel by the 1948 war. Jordan tried to absorb the West Bank. But Egypt kept Gaza apart, sharpening the sense of Palestinian identity, as Cairo used the territory as a base for fedayeen attacks against Israel.
Periodic Israeli efforts since 1967 to disgorge Gaza or put part of the camp population into better housing have been rebuffed. The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat reasoned correctly that taking Gaza off Israeli hands would relieve pressure on Jerusalem to settle the West Bank issue. PLO activists have discouraged residents from leaving the camps, because they offer a convenient base of ``cradle to grave'' political indoctrination and because their filth and squalor are a continuing embarrassment to Israel. As a result, the West Bank saga is one of subtle political intrigue punctuated by episodic violence, while Gaza remains a tinderbox of incendiary emotions with the lid kept on only by the heavy hand of the military occupier.
Given this background and the absence of any historic Jewish settlement in Gaza, the case is strong for what Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of the Labor Party calls ``demilitarization'' of the district. The term implies the maximizing of self-rule and the maintenance of no more than the minimum military presence needed to ensure that the area not again serve as a base for terrorism against Israel proper.
Instead, occupation policies have tended to follow closely those of the West Bank. The process of ``creeping annexation'' - building or expanding settlements to lay the basis for a future claim of Israeli sovereignty - is now occurring in Gaza as well as the West Bank, where it is well advanced.
Both territories, by textbook definition of the term, have become Israeli economic colonies. They are sources of cheap labor and captive markets for Israeli goods. Their farms and factories can export to Jordan or other markets denied Israel but are forbidden from competing with Jewish businesses at home or abroad.
A substantial minority of Israelis warn that it is intolerable for Israel to become a society that lives by the sweat of the Palestinian brow. No less a figure than Abba Eban has noted that Israel is alone among the world's democracies in occupying territories with a population a third as large as its own. And, Pasner notwithstanding, the recent riots again showed Israel alone among the world's democracies in its readiness to use deadly force to control demonstrations where nonlethal force would have been sufficient.
Moreover, Mr. Shamir and his Likud half of Israel's ``national unity'' coalition government have blocked efforts by Mr. Peres and the Labor Party to move toward participation in an international peace conference that could provide a context for direct negotiations. The Likud party frankly endorses annexation of both the West Bank and Gaza.
There is no current external check on this policy, which is driven by ideology, religious fanaticism, and naked opportunism. The oil weapon has turned into an oil glut. The Arab world is preoccupied with the Iraq-Iran war; the Soviet Union with glasnost, perestroika, d'etente, and Afghanistan. The US, too, is in an East-West mode.
But statesmanship need not await war or economic crisis. The current climate could provide Israel with maximum diplomatic leverage toward a just settlement. The message from Gaza is that occupation in perpetuity is untenable. And that message has nothing to do with American television and everything to do with Israeli policies.
C. Robert Zelnick is Pentagon correspondent and former Tel Aviv correspondent (1984-86) for ABC News.