The strongest Palestinian support for beleaguered Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat is coming from the place where it can help him least: the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Mr. Arafat, who has been humiliated and expelled by Syria and whose Fatah organization troops in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley are under siege by Syrian-backed Palestinian rebels, is being supported by almost every West Bank political faction, despite undertones of criticism of aspects of his leadership.
The mufti of Jerusalem, the senior Muslim religious leader of West Bank Palestinians, has even guaranteed any Muslim who assassinates Syrian President Hafez Assad an assured place in ''paradise.''
But never has the handicap of being totally cut off from Palestinian soil been more costly for the PLO leader. While the West Bank and Gaza can give him moral support, Mr. Arafat is based in the Palestinian diaspora and is thus at the mercy of the more radical ideas of Palestinian fighters exiled far from home.
The support for Mr. Arafat on the West Bank is startling in its unanimity. Elected mayors, student groups, professionals, and trade union leaders have all placed prominent ads in the Arabic press opposing Syrian pressure on the PLO and supporting Mr. Arafat as its leader.
This includes even more radical figures like deposed Mayor Bassam Shaka of Nablus, once a supporter of Syria and frequently a harsh critic in private of Arafat. Mr. Shaka said publicly, ''Yasser Arafat . . . is still the real leader of the PLO.'' A feisty hard-liner who showed personal courage after losing his legs in a car bomb attack by an as-yet uncaught assailant, Mr. Shaka told a visitor, ''I'm always an optimist, but I feel very bad about what is happening now.''
This does not mean there is no private criticism of Arafat's leadership, especially on the left. Such criticism has become more widespread since the disastrous expulsion of the PLO from Beirut last summer. Nor is sympathy lacking on the West Bank for the charges by Fatah rebels of corruption, bureaucratic incompetence, and bad appointments to high military posts in the PLO.
''Yasser Arafat is obviously not a saint,'' bluntly admitted one faculty member at Bir Zeit University, a highly nationalist campus on the West Bank. Palestinians here have long complained that PLO money earmarked for West Bank development or for families of dead or imprisoned PLO men often wound up in the wrong hands, and that the PLO leadership outside was frequently out of touch with their needs.
But West Bankers, facing de facto Israeli annexation, are eager to keep the Palestinian cause before the international public eye. They are extremely concerned lest its most visible symbol - Yasser Arafat - may disappear.
''Yasser Arafat stands for Palestinian nationalism and represents Palestinian unity,'' explained Dr. Emile Fahliyeh, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bir Zeit. ''He carried the PLO banner to various international conferences and got diplomatic recognition from so many states.''
Even West Bankers sympathetic to the PLO dissidents' grievances believe they should have settled them inside the organization rather than starting a civil war on the ground. ''They opened the way for Libya and Syria to intervene and to try to control the PLO by fragmenting it,'' complained a bearded Bir Zeit student leader huddled, like many of his fellows, in a group intensely discussing the latest news.
But despite their support for Arafat's leadership, West Bankers realize they have few means to influence his fate. ''What can we do? Can we put ourselves between the two fighting groups?'' asked Palestinian journalist Radwan Abu Ayash rhetorically.
Arafat has often cited West Bank needs to justify diplomatic moves to his radical critics. Some West Bankers are suggesting sending memos in his support to the Arab League or delegations to Arab capitals. But such pleas are unlikely to influence the Syrians.
''West Bankers can show their support through political statements, but obviously we can't invite Yasser Arafat here,'' Professor Sahliyeh said. ''We could hold meetings and rallies, but the Israelis won't let us do more.''
In fact, with students at exams and at least one demonstration banned by Israeli authorities, the only pro-Arafat rally so far has been a larger-than-usual one at Jerusalem's Al Aksa mosque for an anti-Syrian sermon.
Perhaps most frustrated are moderates who had long hoped Arafat would find a way for Palestinians to enter peace negotiations with Jordan over the West Bank's future. Now they fear the PLO will be pushed to the left, and the price for Arafat's survival may be his abandonment of any movement toward such tactics.
''The best thing would be for Yasser Arafat to have the will to go back to a dialogue with Jordan,'' said Saed Erakat, director of public relations at Najjah University in Nablus. His tone indicated he did not hold much hope this would happen.