A deep dispiritedness and sense of futility in the Palestinian nationalist movement, accompanied by a near-vacuum of leadership, have settled over the West Bank of the Jordan River. Overt political resistance to the Israeli occupation has been subdued, at least for the time being.

The immediate causes of this retreat are the Israeli government's tough response to a May 2 Arab ambush in downtown Hebron that left six Jewish settlers dead, and the subsequent reprisal bombings, allegedlly by ultranationalist Israeli settlers, that crippled two of the West Bank's most prominent Arab leaders.

In a broader perspective, however, it fits into a growing fear in the West Bank that, despite the promise of Camp David, in the long run little can be done to arrest Israel's relentless drive to settle the occupied territory with a Jewish population and prevent its return to Arab control.

In a series of interviews across the West Bank, from Jenin in the north to Hebron in the south, Palestinians expressed apprehension that, for whatever reason, the dramatic rise of openly defiant anti-Israeli sentiment over the last year has been crushed under the crackdown and the accumulated effect of the Israeli government's settlement policies.

"How could they leave, after all the building they have done?" asked Mohammed Ibrahim Tawil, 55, a sheep trader, as he sat on cushions on the floor of his living room discussing West Bank conditions with visitors to Hebron, only a hillside away from the sprawling Kiryat Arba Jewish settlement.

"We just ask them to live among us decently, but they are the ones causing the trouble. They are armed and they have the authority to beat us, so they do," Tawil saidd.

For the muscular, compact Tawil, this kind of resignation did not always come so easily. He has been imprisoned twice by Israeli occupation authorities since the West Bank was captured from Jordan in the 1067 Six-Day war.

His son, Dahoud, 24, received a two-month prison term just before the Moslem holy month of Ramadan began in July. He was charged, his father said, with failing to inform authorities of plans by his friends for anti-Israeli activities.

"I've told him to stay out of that kind of thing," Tawil said. "There's no use to it."

The dispiritedness throughout the West Bank has become apparent in many other ways. Anti-Israeli demonstrations and rallies have become a rarity. Rock-throwing at Israeli vehicles has declined sharply. Militant declarations by what is left of the West Bank leadership have died away. The Arabic press has been forced to pull back from its once-strident tone.

The 22-member National Guidance Council, formed to promote West Bank nationalism and rally opposition to the Camp David accords, has all but disintegrated with the deportation or maiming of its most assertive leaders.

Nablus Mayor Bassam Shaka and Ramallah Mayor Karim Khalaf lost their legs when bombs planted in their cars exploded on June 2. Halhoul Mayor Mohammed Hilhem, along with Hebron Mayor Fahd Kawasme and Hebron Islamic Judge Rajib Tamimi, were deported following the May 2 ambush attack in Hebron.

Since the bombing and deportations, the Guidance Council, which was bitterly resented by the military government for its potential to organize resistance to the occupation, has been reduced to virtual inaction.

"The political activity of the last year has just been frozen," said Freij, who along with El Biera Mayor Ibrahim Tawil is the only mayor of stature remaining in the West Bank.

Jemih Nasser, deputy mayor of Jericho, who participates in the Guidance Council's work, dismissed the council with a resigned wave of the hand, and said, "It's all over."

The disbanded leadership was elected in 1976 in the first Israeli-sponsored elections in the West Bank, replacing the traditional pro-Jordan mayors who had assumed power during the Jordanian control from 1948 to 1967. Much to Israel's chagrin, they were swept into office on a platform of open identification with the Palestine Liberation Organization of Yasser Arafat and made the PLO more than ever before part of daily life in the West Bank.

In what resembled the liberalizing "Prague Spring" of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, the occupation authorities inexplicably looked on in the West Bank as young Palestinians defiantly held anti-Israeli demonstrations and raised the Palestinian flag, while the Guidance Council met openly and issued militant communiques condemning the Jewish state.

Such anti-Israeli agitation had occurred before, notably in a series of violent demonstrations that shook the West Bank in 1976. But in the mood of swelling resistance, and perhaps hope generated by Camp David, West Bank residents were more openly defiant than ever before. Teen-agers who previously threw stones and ran away were throwing them and staying put, facing the Israeli soldiers who were their targets.

The Guidance Council declarations constituted direct, open challenges to occupation rules barring political action directed against Israeli control.

As a result, over intense debate broke out in Israel over whether the military government's seeming acquiescence to the nationalist spirit was a result of policy or a lack of it. Ezer Weizman, who was then defense minister, was subjected to sharp criticism by some officials of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Likud government, who warned that the relaxation of control could snowball and perhaps even lead to a Palestinian state.

The signal that the "Prague Spring" was over came in the early morning hours after the Hebron ambush. Weizman, after consulting with Begin, ordered Milhem, Kawasme and Tamimi blilndfolded and put in a helicopter to be taken across the Lebanese border, where they were left.

At first there was a defiant reaction by Palestinian leaders to the sudden deportation, reflected by Shaka in a May 7 interview with The Washington Post. He said, "The people are not afraid. If we [the mayors] don't give guidance, the people will act themselves."

There was a similar, almost euphoric wave of heavy resistance immediately after the bombings of the mayors, also reflected by Shaka in a hospital room interview, where he said, "I have my heart. I have my brain. I have a just cause for which I struggle. I don't need legs."

But as the outrage over the bombings subsided to seething resentment, the first signs of dispiritedness began to surface. Freij and his entire town council resigned, and other mayors talked of quitting.

"This is a hurricane, and the best thing to do in a hurricane is step aside from its path," Freij said then, showing all the signs of a defeated man.

In the occupation authorities' crack-down, mayors and Arab notables were placed under "town arrest," meaning they were prohibited from leaving their own communities. Censorship of Arabic newspapers was tightened. The Guidance Council was ordered not to meet. Mayors were warned under the threat of deportation not to talk with foreign journalists and were told they would be held personally accountable for any anti-Israeli demonstrations in their towns.

In an effort to stem militant nationalism in the West Bank's four Arab universities, the military government last month placed severe new restrictions on curriculum, the hiring of teaching staff and the selection of students. Controls were also aimed at West Bank labor unions, with a prohibition against electing union leaders who have been arrested on security charges.

Occupation troops stepped up their use of collective punishment for purported subversive acts by individuals, mustering entire villages for mass searches and interrogation late at night, and sealing up or dynamiting houses of families whose children were accused of throwing stones or Molotov cocktails at Israeli Army trucks.

Two families were punished by being trucked, along with their possessions, to a deserted and crumbling desert refugee camp near Jericho, where they lived until a public outcry abroad force the military government to reverse itself and allow the families to return to their homes.

Only two weeks ago, Israeli troops rounded up the inhabitants of the Jalazoun refugee camp near Ramallah late at night and made them stand outside for several hours, ostensibly because of a rock throwing incident. Residents of the camp said they were sure it was because of the upcoming reopening of an elementary school, and that the Army was serving a warning against any future rockthrowing by the school's children.

Abdul Moshin Atrash said he and other members of the Halhoul town council were summoned by the local military governor soon after Milhem was deported and warned that Milhem's departure signaled the beginning of a new era in which nationalist activity would no longer be tolerated.

"They told us we are in a new period. Democracy is over. If any kid throws a stone at a bus, then the whole town will be punished for it," Atrash said.

Despite the crackdown and the subsequent dispiritedness, resentment still seethes in the minds of many West Bank Palestinians, who, while forced to continue living with Israeli occupation, still do not accept it.

The resentment assumes little forms such as the vegetable merchant in Hebron's souk who, after the departure of an Arabic-speaking European who he assumed was an Israeli, turned to a neighbor and sneered, "He said it in Arabic, the pimp."

The Israelis understand this resentment clearly. At the Hadassah Clinic here, where ultranationalist settlers are attempting to revive the Jewish presence in the midst of an Arab population, soldiers with automatic rifles look down from rooftop watchtowers dominating the entrance, where more soldiers stare with resentment of their own at passing crowds of Arab shoppers.

This resentment sometimes translates into apprehension, as evidenced by a sharp decline in Israeli tourism in the West Bank.

The Arab resentment also assumes more deadly forms such as a recent wave of bombs planted in Israeli markets and hitchhiking stations used by Israeli soldiers, and the killings of Arab real estate agents accused of arranging the purchases of Palestinian land by Israelis.

The latest victim was identified as Abdul Fattah Yassin, 42, of Beit Lid village, near Tulkarm in the northern West Bank. He was stabbed to death by several youths as he sat in a cafe.

The bombings are frequently claimed by the PLO spokesmen in Beirut and the Israeli authorities, often blame the PLO for the unrest.

Little evidence has publicly surfaced, however, indicating how closely West Bank violence is tied to direction from Beirut. Frequent conversations with PLO officials in Beirut leave the strong impression that the direct contacts are limited.

While the momentum of Palestinian nationalism appears to be broken for now, the void of West Bank leadership next month of Shaka, one of the mayors maimed by bombs. With his left leg amputated above the knee and his right leg below the knee, Shaka has assumed the role of a martyr, folk hero and symbol of resistance. This role is enhanced by the difficulties the Israeli authorities will face in acting against him because of his crippled condition.

Moreover, Shaka's international exposure over the last month, coupled with his appeal as a charismatic spokesman for the Palestinian nationalist movement, would nearly guarantee a world outcry should the military government attempt to deport or imprison him.

"Shaka is untouchable," said Bethlehem's mayor Freij.