Intifada, a word rarely heard in the United States, is used all too commonly in this possibly holy, but certainly not peaceful, land. At least it has been common for the past three years.

On Dec. 9, 1987, in the occupied Gaza Strip, an Arab stabbed an Israeli - certainly not an uncommon event. Two days later, however, an Israeli truck slammed into two cars carrying Arab workers, killing four and injuring 17.Almost immediately, rumors spread that the Israeli truck driver was a relative of the stabbing victim.

Israeli investigators dismissed the truck driver with a traffic citation - and Palestinians, particularly the youth, were inflamed.

Palestinian youths in the Gaza Strip went on a rampage of protest. The Israeli Defense Force responded - quelling the rioting but not a new-found resolve to achieve, once and for all, an inbred dream: creation of a Palestinian state.

The lid had blown off an always-simmering, but now boiling, pressure cooker.

The festering unrest - and the dream - spread. Soon, Palestinians came to realize that they could stand up to the Israeli army - if they were willing to risk their lives to do so.

Violence, and probably killing, is very likely in the occupied territories today. At the very least, there will be a general strike among Palestinians commemorating three years since the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, was born.

"What started as a headless grass-roots movement became a well-organized effort," said a United Nations official, himself Palestinian.

The intifada, an Arab term meaning "shaking off," is most often characterized by rock throwing - seemingly the only way for Palestinians living under martial law to attack their oppressors.

But it has become much more than that. It is literally a nationalistic call for unity among Palestinians - a call to fight, peacefully or violently - to establish a state in what they believe is their homeland.

Ever since Israel claimed the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 six-day war, violence has been a way of life. But in 1987, it became organized, unified and focused on a central issue. And it escalates virtually daily.

The escalation put the Israeli government in a tight spot: Israeli leaders have reached no clear consensus about what to do with the territories, and they have serious concerns about the safety of their people.

But until a decision is made, the Israeli Defense Force is required to administer the area, essentially as an occupation force.

So, Israelis see themselves as trying to protect themselves against a civilian uprising in a militarily occupied area.

And politically, there's no easy way to do that. The violence, whether rock-throwing or otherwise, must be stopped; Israeli citizens must be protected. So they fight rocks with bullets. In an ironic switch to the biblical tale, Israel has become Goliath and the Palestinians are David.

To make matters worse, the bullets haven't stopped the Palestinians; they're struggling for a home - in a free state.

"It is not just a revolt. It has become a way of life which will continue until achievement of the goal - establishment of a Palestinian state. No matter what the Israelis do - it won't matter," an unemployed 23-year-old West Bank resident said, through an interpreter.

But it's a costly way of life.

Israel has initiated economic and other sanctions against the Palestinians, the effect of which is a high unemployment rate and worsening living conditions.

The real cost, however, isn't economic.

In the three years, some 1,000 Palestinians - nearly one each day - have been killed. Some 25,000 to 30,000 more have been injured by gunfire. The Israeli death toll stands at 20, with an estimated 4,000 injured.

That an estimated 300 of the Palestinian killings were committed by other Palestinians (in equally if not more brutal ways) illustrates one of the most tragic consequences of the intifada.

"It has made brutality a regular part of existence," one long-time observer said.

Like any revolution, the movement has many factions - from violent rampaging youth gangs who probably have killed their own members, to educated men and women whose hearts yearn for a homeland.

Sitting in a modest office on the campus of a small college, a young woman gestured to a map of Palestine and searched for the English words: "This map is living inside our hearts. . .I can't express in words, but . . . it is our mission."

That this particular young woman lives in Jordan, safely away from the daily turmoil of the West Bank or Gaza Strip, certainly didn't diminish her passion for the cause.

But Israelis, though confused about what to do with the territories, are equally passionate about protecting themselves against the uprising.

"Should we get out of the territories in response to the intifada? Yes - in exchange for peace. But the Palestinians can't deliver peace.

"Should we get out without peace? Hell, no," said Yosef Goell, a political analyst and writer for the Jerusalem Post.

A Palestinian rock thrower, convicted for a first offense, is fined about $1,250.

Last week, an Israeli military officer, writing under a pen name in the Jerusalem Post, lambasted the Israeli judicial system for giving such a light "morally repugnant," sentence for "attempted murder."

Palestinians suspected of crimes also lose travel privileges outside the occupied territories - where most find jobs.

Other Israeli efforts to deal with intifada originally included school closure. The public schools have since been opened, but many colleges and universities remain closed.

A father in a small town north of Jerusalem, in the West Bank, said his son had just scored 93 percent on his state-mandated final exams, easily qualifying for admission into a college or university.

"But," he lamented, "the colleges are closed."

"Like any revolution there will be negative and positive," he said, through an interpreter. "But irrespective of the negative, (the intifada) will show the world there is a Palestinian people who want independence."

" have lost all hope. There is no turning back," said a Palestinian banker.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the IDF said the uprising, while requiring Israel to put more into internal security and less into external security, has "not damaged our motivation or ability to deal with the threat."

And an American observer believes the intifada has raised international awareness and put the Palestinian issue "higher on the international agenda."

Not surprisingly, many, if not most, Palestinians believe the United States holds the key that will unlock the door to their homeland.

And, as yet, they believe Americans - or at least the American government - are unwilling to use that key.

"They say that Palestine is an occupied land. But I say America is an occupied land. It is occupied by Israel - in the minds, in the land, in the Congress," said a Palestinian college student.