MADRID -- The phalanx of black-suited Spanish Guardia Civil mowed through the mass of television cameras and reporters like a high-speed earthmover. In their midst, barely tall enough to be seen, a black-haired woman struggled to keep up with her bodyguards' rapid pace. Smiling slightly, she wore the look of someone who realized that, for the moment, events were beyond her control.

But not for long. As soon as Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi reached the podium for yet another press conference, she was back in command. A teacher by profession, a scholar of medieval literature by choice, a politician by nature, Ashrawi likes nothing better than an opportunity to present what is her passion by birth: the Palestinian case.

As spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation at the Middle East peace conference here, the 45-year-old Ashrawi has been arguing that case with a composure, conciseness and clarity long missing in the bitter Palestinian-Israeli dispute. In the process, she has left many of the outworn cliches and taboos surrounding this conflict cut to ribbons.

Take, for example, the man who rose at Friday's press conference to confront her. A representative of an American Christian broadcasting outlet, he said he "didn't understand" how Ashrawi could ask Israel "to exchange land for peace," because "when Judea and Samaria were in the hands of the Arab world, Israel was attacked three times."

"First of all, I find your reference to 'Judea and Samaria' a statement of extreme bias, and rather offensive," Ashrawi replied, homing in on his use of the biblical names for the occupied West Bank that echoes the Israeli government's religion-based claim to the land where Ashrawi lives and where the Palestinians hope someday to have an independent state. "I am a Palestinian Christian, and I know what Christianity is. I am a descendant of the first Christians in the world, and Jesus Christ was born in my country, in my land. Bethlehem is a Palestinian town. So I will not accept this one-upmanship on Christianity. Nobody has the monopoly."

After dismissing the man's challenge with a deft mini-dissertation, she ended with: "Are there any serious questions?"

From start to finish, Ashrawi's voice had not wavered a decibel, up or down, from its customary level tone. Even an Israeli spokesman, Yossi Olmert, gives her performances grudging respect: "She's definitely impressive. She appears well on television."

It was television, specifically ABC's "Nightline," that pushed Ashrawi to the forefront. She was a virtual unknown outside the region until she appeared on the program's groundbreaking April 1988 "Town Meeting" pitting Palestinians against Israelis during the height of the intifada. She has been booked on the program four times since, thus inspiring the term "Nightline Palestinian."

If her people were looking for a "new image" at this peace conference, Ashrawi, more than anyone else, has helped give it to them. With her casual clothes and practical shoes, she looks like she's headed for a PTA meeting. This is a woman who uses words like "reductive" and "teleological," who got her master's degree in textual criticism of Renaissance literature and then spent three years at the University of Virginia, earning a PhD in medieval literature.

But as a former dean of Birzeit University in the West Bank, Ashrawi has dodged bullets on campus, and seen four of her students killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers. She also watched in horror as television reports described the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in Beirut's refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. For her, this was a turning point. "I said to myself, 'This has got to stop. Palestinians must not be an easy prey to everybody.' "

Ashrawi sees language as a key to winning that battle. And it has been largely her ability to package the Palestinian political struggle in new language, as well as her near-perfect English, that has thrust her into the spotlight this past week.

"I cannot separate language from substance," she said in a hurried interview as she chain-smoked cigarettes. "You cannot be a good spokesperson if you don't have the political ability and background and training. ... No matter how good your English is, if you don't know what you're talking about you'll be exposed immediately as a phony.

"I don't like slogans. I don't like the sort of slick professional PR attitude, and I think that's probably why people react positively to what I say, because I'm genuine. And I don't mince words, and I don't play games. I really like to answer questions. I don't like to manipulate."

She also attributes her new status to a "historical coincidence ... where ability coincided with need." Her forte, she said, is being able "to articulate, present clearly, analyze and to get through to others. It's something I think you develop as a teacher. You're always trying to reach people, you're always trying to get them to not just believe you, but to understand as well, to understand before they believe. To convince."

Ashrawi was born in the West Bank town of Ramallah, the youngest of five daughters. Her father, a prominent politician, was a physician in the Palestinian Army set up when Britain was the colonial power in her country between the two world wars. She lives there today with her husband, Emile, a photographer, artist and filmmaker, and their two daughters, Zeina and Amal, and while she says she is not a pacifist like her husband, she believes that "military options don't solve anything."

"She is a very kind, generous person, and very giving of her time and self," said her sister Huda Mikhail, a Washington artist. "And very, very patient. And unlike most of us in the family, she is the calmest, coolest person, and very articulate, as you may have noticed." Which is more than can be said, Mikhail complained, for Cable News Network anchor Bernard Shaw, who kept mispronouncing Ashrawi's name last week until her sister called CNN headquarters in Atlanta to alert the network to the gaffe.

Another sister, Muna Mikhail Doany, is an official of the World Bank and lives in Bethesda.

Washington trade association employee Martin King, a friend of Ashrawi's in the early 1970s, when she attended graduate school at the University of Virginia, recalled that she "had a beat-up old car, and she was always taking friends like me on shopping expeditions that we couldn't do otherwise." He said he would spend hours talking to her at the now-defunct Crystal City sidewalk cafe on Connecticut Avenue.

"She's a very warm and courageous person -- the two qualities can't be separated," King said. "Her intellect was as sharp as anything you could imagine, and she was also a very practical politician. She was also very feminine, very attractive to a lot of men. She was intellectually provocative, and would challenge anyone to a good political argument, which she usually won by her powers of persuasion, or by being tactful, or by being incredibly charming."

"She was a quite beautiful, well-born Palestinian woman," recalled her University of Virginia thesis adviser, a professor of medieval literature who asked that his name not be used. "She was extremely intense about her studies and virtually all aspects of life. She entertained very graciously and formally in a kind of exotic manner that was always delightful. And she had so much intensity, she found it very hard to complete papers for me. She never felt they were quite good enough."

The professor added: "She had to fight a long battle to feel empowered as a woman, coming out of a culture that both elevates women and knows very clearly what a woman's place is. She didn't have that slightly aggressive confidence that a lot of young American graduate students, female, come to quite naturally. She had a longer row to hoe."

Today her self-confidence, and her sense of a woman's place, are no longer in doubt. At a press conference yesterday, referring to reports of bickering between the Arab delegations, Ashrawi said, "We are not in any disagreement with our Arab brothers and sisters -- although all of them are men." As the press corps laughed, she said in an aside, "I had to say that for history."

And despite what others say, she counts impatience as "a very apparent fault in me. I'm very impatient with a slow pace, or with people who want to waste time and energy. And I'm impatient with ignorance, willful ignorance, not people who genuinely want to know. I'm very patient with them, because I'm a teacher. That's my job. But willful ignorance, it bothers me, and I'm very blunt, which bothers many people."

Her emergence onto the international stage this past week has its roots in her student years in Beirut. At the American University in the late 1960s, Ashrawi was a spokeswoman for the General Union of Palestinian Students. In 1969 she was the only woman in the union's delegation from Lebanon at an international conference in Amman, Jordan -- where she first met Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

In the 1980s, Ashrawi was occasionally in the news, spearheading protests against the Israeli army operations on the Birzeit campus. In one incident, she arrived on the scene after a student had been shot and helped take him to the hospital. Her appearance on ABC's "Town Meeting" was the first time her voice reached an international audience.

So, when U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III began his Middle East diplomatic shuttling eight months ago, Ashrawi was a logical choice to be among the West Bank Palestinian leaders designated to meet with him. In the course of those negotiations, Ashrawi and West Bank leader Faisal Husseini have become the main conduits for Baker's unofficial dialogue with the PLO and Arafat.

It was Ashrawi, a Palestinian journalist said, who introduced the practice of taking minutes at these meetings. This was an innovation for Palestinian politics, he said, for up until then Palestinian spokesmen "would go back to their hotel rooms and write the minutes in a way that made them look good."

During these long and often difficult negotiations with Baker, "somehow, I always had the feeling it's going to work," Ashrawi said. "I never questioned it. There were many, many moments in which things threatened to fall apart. It's the most complex, most intricate set of relationships, negotiations, discussions, balancing, convincing, putting up with pressures, doing damage control, maintaining national unity, coordinating, repairing, writing, it's just nonstop. It's very, very complex -- people don't know how complicated Palestinian reality is."

When the Israelis refused to accept Ashrawi and Husseini as part of the official Palestinian delegation to the peace conference because of their known sympathies for the PLO, the Americans agreed to let them come as part of an "advisory" team to the official delegation. In order to not to provoke the Israelis, Ashrawi deflects questions on her official status within the PLO -- which is outlawed in Israel and its occupied territories.

"I can't tell you that," she said, laughing. "I always tell the press that the questions I don't answer for the {Israeli} interrogator, I don't answer for the press."

The keynote address of the Palestinian delegation, delivered last week by delegation leader Haidar Abdel Shafi, bore Ashrawi's sense of language, and reflected what she likes to call "the human dimension" of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

"We wish to address the Israeli people, with whom we have a prolonged exchange of pain: Let us share hope instead," the speech said at one point.

"We have seen you look back in deepest sorrow at the tragedy of your past and look on in horror at the disfigurement of the victim turned oppressor. Not for this have you nurtured your hopes, dreams and your offspring. ... Let us end the Palestinian-Israeli fatal proximity in this unnatural condition of occupation, which has already claimed too many lives. ... Set us free to reengage as neighbors and as equals on our holy land."

This message seemed not to impress Israelis such as Deputy Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who claimed that the speech, which demanded an eventual Palestinian state comprising all the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, "called for the dismantling of the state of Israel."

"I personally wanted to say {to the Israelis} that we do recognize your humanity, we do understand your heritage. Now you owe us -- you have to understand ours," Ashrawi said of the speech. "But I don't think they did."

Ashrawi said she has been "too busy" to be nervous or worried about the threats made by extremists against those Palestinians attending the peace conference. Besides, she said, "you have to take risks. We have taken many risks. And this peace process is actually risk-taking.

"My father told us when we were young that you have to be daring when you have right on your side. And you know, sort of being indecisive and not taking decisions and running away from challenges -- it's a luxury we don't have."

Staff writer Lloyd Grove in Washington contributed to this report.