Jerusalem — Palestinian leaders in the territories occupied by Israel in the ''six-day war'' are girding themselves for a political offensive by Israel that may be as gruelling as the military operation waged against the Palestinians in Lebanon.
Defense Minister Ariel Sharon has made it clear that he believes the grievous wounds suffered by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon has opened the way for a ''moderate leadership'' to emerge in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that would be willing to negotiate with Israel over Palestinian autonomy.
However, leaders in the occupied territories asserted this week their continued opposition to autonomy and to any attempt by the Israeli authorities to impose a more cooperative leadership.
''With this campaign in Lebanon, Mr. Sharon has destroyed moderation itself, '' says former Jordanian Defense Minister Anwar Nusseibeh in Jerusalem.
''The PLO is a symbol of a cause. You may destroy the symbol - and I don't think he has - but the cause remains. If the PLO is destroyed a new symbol will arise which will be more radical.'' Mr. Nusseibeh, who is close to Jordan's King Hussein, said he was convinced that the king would not bring Jordan into the autonomy talks even though the PLO might be damaged. ''He didn't join the talks because he was opposed to autonomy, not because he was afraid of the PLO.''
Virtually all mayors in the occupied territories have publicly reiterated their refusal to cooperate with the civil administration which Israel has set up in place of a military government. Even the most moderate mayors, like Bethlehem's Elias Freij, have signed proclamations denouncing Israel's attack in Lebanon and reiterating their support of the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.
Observers see the spate of announcements by local leaders as an attempt to rally a population stunned by the extent of the blow against Palestinians in Lebanon. The reports of 2,000 dead Palestinians and 6,000 prisoners taken by the Israeli Army has caused widespread concern among residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, most of whom have relatives in Lebanon. Thus far, no names of casualties or prisoners have been transmitted by the Red Cross or any other source.
The local Palestinians have directed much of their bitterness against the Arab states who they say did nothing to protect the Palestinians in Lebanon. ''The Arab regimes who claim to defend Palestinian rights stood by like spectators at a football match,'' says Ibrahim Dakak, a member of the National Guidance Committee, the top leadership body in the occupied territories.
The United States has also been widely accused of encouraging the Israeli attack to further American interests in the region.
Mr. Sharon said last week that Israel would start a peace offensive in the occupied territories as soon as the military situation quieted down. Now that others cannot solve their problems for them, said Mr. Sharon, the Arabs of the territories must understand that they themselves must solve them. The more the PLO leadership in Beirut was suppressed, he said, the better the chances for negotiations on autonomy with the Arabs of the territories.
The Palestinians have opposed the autonomy proposal as a trap intended to perpetuate Israeli rule in the territories. Israel has declared it a first step to a permanent peace treaty.
A major instrument for Mr. Sharon is the recently established village leagues whose leaders have declared their independence of the PLO. The established Palestinian leadership dismisses the league members as quislings.
Last week, the Israeli authorities dismissed the mayor and council of Dura village near Hebron for refusing to deal with the Israeli civil administration and appointed as new mayor a brother of Mustafa Dudin, founder of the village leagues.