Janine Ali, a heavyset woman with jet-black hair and dark eyes, has only the faintest trace of the slow, rhythmic cadence of her ancestral home in the West Bank city of Bireh -- a land whose ownership remains a source of deep and deadly dispute.

When she goes out in public, Ali wears the hijab, the white kerchief that identifies her as a devout Muslim. Although she was born in Dearborn, Mich., more than 40 years ago, and for the past two decades has lived in Arlington, the scarf marks her as an outsider, a stranger from a strange land. And when incidents occur like this week's shooting at the Empire State Building observation deck by a seemingly deranged visitor from the Gaza Strip, she becomes worse than a stranger in the eyes of some. She becomes an enemy.

"It's a good life here," Ali says. "We've raised our children here. We live by the laws, we try to get along. But we're still considered different. And we'll never have the same rights as you."

She remembers the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. Until it became clear that this was a home-grown atrocity perpetrated against Americans by Americans, talking heads on television screens speculated about which Middle Eastern group was responsible. People blew car horns at her. Some shied away from her at the grocery. One man even offered the classic line: "Why don't you go back where you came from?"

By custom and historical necessity, Palestinians have become nomads, wandering far from their native land. Somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 of them have settled in the greater Washington area, with the biggest concentration in Northern Virginia -- in Falls Church, Springfield, Burke, Annandale, Arlington and Alexandria. Some, like Ali, are natives of the United States, others are relative newcomers from the past decade or two. Some are Muslims and some are Christians. Some hail from the manicured hills of such sophisticated West Bank cities as Ramallah, while others are escapees from the hardscrabble refugee camps of the Gaza Strip. Some are staunch supporters of the peace process, while others feel betrayed by it.

What they have in common is an ancient culture and a modern set of grievances, and something else as well: a refined sense of vulnerability. No matter how Americanized they become, they fear, they remain outsiders here. Fear of Deportation

This week it's the Empire State Building shooting; before that, it was the case of Mousa Abu Marzook, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip who lives with his wife and six children in Falls Church, that brought home the fragility of the Palestinians' position here. Abu Marzook is a businessman who has lived in the United States for 15 years and in Falls Church since 1991. He and his family are well known in the Islamic and Palestinian community. Four of his six children were born here and are American citizens. He has never been accused of a crime in this country.

But Abu Marzook is also the self-acknowledged leader of the political wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement, otherwise known as Hamas. The military wing of his movement has claimed responsibility for many of the devastating suicide bus bombings that have killed some 200 Israelis, most of them civilians, since 1994. And, so, when he and his wife, Nadia, and children arrived at Kennedy Airport in New York in July 1995 on a flight from London, he found himself taken into custody and held for 12 hours while officials determined who he was and why his name had suddenly appeared on the U.S. government's terrorist list.

He has been in jail ever since, while his lawyers have fought his extradition to Israel. Last month he dropped his appeal, and negotiations over his future are continuing.

Some Palestinians contend he is a moderate with no connection whatsoever to the suicide bombs. Others are not terribly troubled by the deaths of Israeli civilians, one way or the other. But whether they agree with Abu Marzook's politics or not, almost everyone sees his arrest and his family's ordeal as a chilling reminder of what they fear could happen to any one of them.

"For us it was frightening that it was the American government, not some foreign government, treating him in this way," said Anisa Abd El Fattah, who attends Dar Al-Hijrah, the Falls Church mosque where the Marzooks also pray. "Because if it can happen to Abu Marzook, it can happen to anyone."

Arab American groups including the American Muslim Council and the National Association of Arab Americans, which operate out of the same building on New York Avenue NW, have rallied to Abu Marzook's cause not because they agree with his politics, they say, but because they want him and his family to receive fair legal treatment.

"There is a fear that exists particularly among new immigrants who feel they are vulnerable here," says Khalil Jahshan, president of the National Association of Arab Americans, himself a Palestinian who came here in the 1960s. "The slightest move raises all kinds of fears and sometimes even panic. It may be in some respects exaggerated but it's also justified." The Comforts of Home

Although some Palestinians stay far away from the resettled community here, many cluster around a set of familiar institutions that mirror those back home. They buy their crisp, honeyed pastries from Samadi Sweets or from the Mediterranean Bakery in Alexandria, and their groceries at places like the Mount of Olives grocery on Payne Street in Baileys Crossroads.

There, in Mahmoud Khatid's store, the smells of black olives and coriander and the all-purpose Middle Eastern spice known as zatar is the same as might be found in a Palestinian grocery in Bethlehem or the Old City of Jerusalem. Next door, in the adjoining restaurant, middle-aged men huddle around a Formica table drinking endless cups of strong coffee while chicken and beef schwarma turn slowly on vertical spits, and posters of the faithful at prayer outside Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock Mosque line the tiled walls.

They form clubs based upon the cities and towns their families come from: The American Federation of Ramallah, the El-Bireh Society, the Bethlehem Association, the Beit Hanina Club -- all have branches in this area. Those who are strongly Islamic send their children to the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria. In fact, Abu Marzook's wife, Nadia, said one of the main reasons they moved to the Washington area was the academy's low tuition.

Many attend the Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque, where cleric Saleh Mohammed Saleh estimates that 25 percent of the worshipers are Palestinian. Dar Al-Hijrah's growth over the past decade reflects that of the community it serves. It began in 1983, Saleh recalls, as a small building with perhaps 40 to 50 families. Now there are three buildings on the site and as many as 1,500 worshipers at Friday prayers. People come for services, but they also use the mosque as a community center, a place for their children to learn Islamic culture, safe from the temptations of the shopping mall. For them, the mosque is an island of Islamic tranquillity in a sea of Western modernism.

Ahmed Yousef runs an Islamic think tank called the United Association for Studies and Research, based in an anonymous-looking town house complex in Springfield. He has seven children, most of whom attend the Islamic Saudi Academy. But they also go to the mall, play video games and experience the panoply of American culture, the good, the bad and the profane. "At a certain point you become worried about them," Yousef says. "You have to compromise or you lose your kids."

Physical discipline is part of the culture of the Yousef home -- when a child disobeys, he or she may get hit. This is how it has always been done in Gaza, and how Yousef does it here. But one day his teenage son came home from school and told his father and his mother, "Look, guys, we have learned if your parents hit you this is the phone number you should call. It's the police."

"Believe me, I was surprised by this," Yousef recalls. And not very pleased.

Yousef, a Palestinian academic with a master's degree in journalism from Colorado State University, is a childhood friend of Abu Marzook. Israeli security officials contend his nonprofit research center is part of a loose network of Hamas-linked institutions in the United States. Abu Marzook served on its board for two years.

Yousef insists both he and his friend are genuine Islamic moderates. They may not like the peace process, but they have learned to respect it. As for his friend, "This is not a guy who plays with guns. He has a very good reputation among Muslims as a moderate man."

For some Palestinians, the peace process has been a passport to new respectability and political clout. When Yasser Arafat comes to town tomorrow to visit the White House, the community is organizing a $100-a-plate dinner for him at the Omni Shoreham, under the auspices of the Palestinian American Congress.

The Congress is a relatively new organization designed to give Palestinian Americans a higher political profile. "We believe that Palestinian' should not be a dirty word anymore," says Najat Arafat Khelil, Washington representative for the group. "We really want to emphasize our rights and encourage our people to become more active in the political system here."

There is much to be active about. Palestinians and other Arab Americans say they are generally pleased with President Clinton's stance in moments of national crisis, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and last summer's TWA airline crash, when he cautioned Americans against jumping to conclusions about who was to blame. But they are less pleased with some of the administration's initiatives, like anti-terrorism legislation that they fear will erode their civil liberties, and the new system of "profiling" that the nation's airlines are adopting to identify and isolate potential terrorists. They also complain about what they consider FBI harassment of Muslims.

"In a sense we have used calamities such as the World Trade Center bombing and Oklahoma City to organize ourselves," says Abdurahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslim Council. "There has always been a feeling among some of us that we should lie low. But that attitude is changing."

Last weekend's shooting at the Empire State Building could have been another such calamity. But news reports did not brand the lone gunman, Ali Hassan Abu Kamal, a "Palestinian terrorist," downplaying his ethnic origin and focusing instead on his apparent mental imbalance -- much to the relief of local Palestinians.

At the Federation of Ramallah clubhouse in Vienna, where Palestinians go to play cards and socialize, there was praise for the way the media handled the story. "People see it as a sign that things are improving, slowly but surely," said Maher Hanania, a local leader of the federation. "Even the mayor of New York City {Rudolph Giuliani}, who hasn't always been a friend, didn't say anything harsh."

Alongside the pull of the new country, however, there remains for many the even stronger pull of the homeland. Hanania has lived here nearly 30 years, ever since his father brought him, his mother and his six siblings from Ramallah after the 1967 Six Day War. Hanania is a lawyer with the Department of Labor, a man who knows his rights and isn't afraid to exercise them. Still, when he returns to Ramallah each summer, it is as if a great burden has been lifted from his shoulders.

"When I get there it's like the end of the rat race," he says. "Someone brings me bread and a bowl of hummus and a cup of tea and I can relax. I forget about everything in this country. It really feels like home."

Hanania, a Christian and a moderate, says he looks forward to the day he and his family can move back home. On this he and Yousef, a Muslim and more of a radical, agree. "My dream is there, not here," Yousef says. CAPTION: Nadia Ashi and children in Falls Church with a photo of her husband, Mousa Abu Marzook, a Hamas leader fighting extradition to Israel. Some Palestinians say the attention given to such incidents makes them feel like outsiders or worse. Says family friend Ahmed Yousef, above, of Marzook, "This is not a guy who plays with guns." CAPTION: Mahmoud Khatid, owner of the Mount of Olives grocery in Baileys Crossroads; and Nadia Ashi, who moved with husband Mousa Abu Marzook and their children to Falls Church in 1991.