Hondurans call them "Turks" because when they came early in this century their homeland was under Turkish rule and their passports were issued by the Ottoman Empire. But they are from Bethlehem and Beit Jala and Nablus.

In this most prosperous of Honduran cities, a part of the Palestinian diaspora has come to rest. During the past 60 years, its members have taken a predominant role in the city's and much of the country's economic life -- both depended on and resented.

Although Palestinians represent only about 4,000 of the 250,000 people who live in San Pedro Sula, they own the major factories, the biggest newspaper and the Pepsi plant. They seem to own almost every store around Third Avenue, the cluttered commercial main street: El Cairo Jeans, the Jerusalem General Store. They also include more than a third of the business leaders being held hostage by leftist gunmen in the Chamber of Commerce here.

The rebels, who demand release of imprisoned comrades, freed another 20 hostages, The Associated Press said. This left 39 inside as talks continued, officials said.

Some of the most conservative Palestinians -- apparently all are Christian rather than Moslem -- devotedly back the Palestine Liberation Organization. On Sept. 13, a full-page ad in La Prensa, the city's biggest and virulently anticommunist newspaper, offered "a homage to the Palestinian combatants and their leader Yasser Arafat." Over a picture of him, the Honduran Arab-American Federation congratulated the PLO for its stand against "the Israeli leaders and their 120,000 Jewish soldiers who didn't have the courage to confront 16,000 Palestinian commandos."

Most officers of the Arab Federation are hostages now. But its vice president, Victoria Aja, who taught in Palestinian refugee camps until her husband brought her here in 1962, said she knows nothing about the PLO's openly avowed "revolutionary solidarity" with and training of Salvadoran rebels and Nicaraguan Sandinistas, believed by many Hondurans to have masterminded the Chamber of Commerce takeover.

"The PLO are people who are sacrificing their lives and they want to go back to their home," said Aja. "They are not terrorists." She remembers the long fight against Israel firsthand. But older Palestinians, or their parents, came to Honduras to escape repression and wars that wracked their homeland long before the 1948 creation of Israel. Jorge Larach, 69, the owner of La Prensa and reputedly one of the richest men in this poor country, said his parents came by accident.

Illiterate and desperately poor as they escaped the grim Ottoman rule, "they made, I'm sorry to say, a big mistake," Larach said as he sat in the office of his department store. "They thought this America where they came was the United States."

The first Palestinians arrived here in the days just before World War I. Some started as itinerant peddlers and went on to become millionaires. Others have reached only a moderate prosperity as proprietors of mom-and-pop "bazaars" selling dry goods.

The big American banana companies, Standard and United Fruit, weaned many Hondurans away from peasant dependence on subsistence farming and created a relatively prosperous wage-earning economy here ideal for Palestinian merchants.

For two generations, their society remained insular and defensive. They married among themselves or returned to British Palestine after World War I, then to Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, to find their spouses, as Aja's husband found her.

"I spoke no Spanish and he spoke no Arabic, so we courted in English," she recalls.

Until the current Honduran administration, whose government minister is half Palestinian, the Arabs might have influenced Honduran governments with their money, but they never participated openly.

"There is a dislike for the Palestinians and I don't know why," said Larach. "I think it comes from envy. They see you come with nothing and you work . . and get rich and they don't like it."

According to Honduran bank officials there is evidence that some of the Palestinians are getting ready to move again, sending money to Miami. Their life is beginning to disintegrate in this region's turmoil. They escaped the terror of the Turks and the wars with Israel to find now more than a dozen of their leaders taken hostage.