JERUSALEM -- Slowly and painfully, Israel is beginning to confront accounts of systematic torture of Palestinian prisoners at the hands of its own authorities.
Since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising 5 1/2 years ago, there has been a succession of accusations from human rights groups, stories from disgusted soldiers, revelations from autopsies in suspicious deaths, secret medical reports and embarrassing court testimony about prisoner abuse.
These stories have dragged to light a dark side of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that has raised disturbing implications for the Jewish state.
Many Israelis flinch from such accounts. They cite the toll of Jews in Palestinian attacks and say that harsh means are needed to confront terrorism.
"It's not that we woke up one morning and we wanted to do this," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said recently. "Israel is forced, really, to take the necessary measures in response to violence."
Lt. Col. Moshe Fogel, a spokesman for the Israeli army, expresses the prevailing sentiment of Israelis that the government should use every method available to guarantee their safety.
"I have to tell you something: If my daughter is on her way to school and she may be stabbed, and there is a legal remedy that can lessen the chance, we will use as a society our right to protect ourselves," he said. "That is the bottom line."
But the demands for an end to abusive interrogation techniques are growing in several quarters of the Israeli public and political spectrum:
* Last Monday, the Israeli Supreme Court heard final arguments on an appeal to extend to Palestinians the same protections against torture that exist for Israelis held in custody.
* Several legislators have introduced a bill in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to outlaw torture and require Israel to abide by international treaties on human rights.
* The Israeli medical society recently forbade doctors from signing examination forms approving use of abusive interrogation methods.
* The Justice Ministry has formed a commission to study interrogation of Palestinians.
* In an unusual move, the Knesset Law Committee has scheduled hearings on human rights in the occupied territories, and the chairman raised a fuss Tuesday when the government refused to send high-ranking officials to defend its practices.
"The taboo of silence over torture has been broken," says Stanley Cohen, a Hebrew University professor and chairman of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. "There is an improvement in the level of public awareness and concern. There is some reaction.
"But I don't think there's a major improvement in the use of torture at all," he adds. "It still is just as routine."
The government's response to allegations of abuse varies. Officially, it denies that torture occurs.
Use of force acknowledged
But it acknowledges that investigators use some physical and psychological force; 1987 government guidelines condone such practices. Officials argue these interrogation methods are necessary to deal with the Palestinian uprising, which has cost ,, the lives of 142 Israelis and 1,107 Palestinians in 5 1/2 years.
"All the effective measures against terrorism are neither nice nor gentle," said Knesset member Ephraim Sneh, a member of the intelligence subcommittee. "We don't take people who are suspected of terrorism to the Hyatt Regency."
Since the start of the intifada in 1987, an estimated 100,000 Palestinians -- more than 5 percent of the population under occupation -- have been taken into custody.
Human rights groups contend torture is routinely used in their interrogations. B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group, estimates that 5,000 prisoners are subjected to such methods ++ each year.
The conduct has been publicized in many ways.
Arie Shavit, an Israeli serving his army reserve duty as a guard in a Gaza prison for Palestinians, agonized over what he heard there and described it in a provocative article two years ago.
"At the end of your watch, on the way to your tent to the showers, you sometimes hear frightening screams . . . hair-raising human screams," he wrote in an account published in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz in 1991.
"They are screaming because other people, in uniforms like yours, are doing things to them to make them scream. They are screaming because your state -- Jewish, democratic -- is systematically, carefully and completely legally making them scream."
"Torture in Israel is not an accident, not an episode of a few mentally disturbed persons, but it is a system," said Tamar Gozansky, a liberal Knesset member who introduced the anti-torture bill.
Human rights groups and Jewish attorneys who work with prisoners agree. They have detailed a number of practices:
* Beatings. A major report by B'tselem in 1991 said that of 41 prisoners it had interviewed, only one (a journalist) was not beaten. Interrogators used fists, sticks, feet and metal bars, according to the report.
Jim Ron, a former Israeli soldier and now an investigator for Middle East Watch, said interrogators now were trying to hide injuries:
"They concentrate on areas like the stomach, the groin, the feet, where you can't see the bruises so much."
* Painful tied positions. Prisoners say they are routinely left for many hours in excruciating positions such as the "banana," over a chair or with hands tied to ankles behind the back, or the "shabah," with hands stretched to painful positions above the head.
* The refrigerator, or closet. Prisoners say they are left in narrow, windowless spaces, sometimes chilled by cold air, for days.
* Hooding, in which prisoners' heads are covered with filthy sacks for days on end, to induce disorientation and sensory deprivation.
* Sleep deprivation, combined with long periods of handcuffed, forced standing, which some prisoners report has lasted as long as 10 days.
'Cruel and unusual'
"These methods are not as gross as in some countries," said Mr. Cohen. "No one is mutilated, or torn apart, or raped . . . But these methods fit the definition of torture. They are cruel and unusual methods."
"They are using sophisticated types of torture. But it's clearly torture," said Kenneth Roth, acting director of Human Rights Watch. "The international prohibition on torture is absolute. It's simply a barbaric practice. Trial by ordeal should have gone out with the Middle Ages."
Israeli officials deny that their methods are illegal.
"We behave carefully, according to the rules," said Col. David Yahav, until recently the deputy military advocate general of the Israeli army. "Whenever there is any allegation that any interrogator violated the rules, it is submitted to the state attorney."
The rules are those derived from a 1987 report headed by then-Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau. The complete report has never been made public. But it allows "moderate physical pressure" and psychological pressure on prisoners, despite complaints that the Geneva Convention strictly prohibits such techniques.
Two years ago, civil rights advocates sued, arguing that the rules are illegal and that Palestinians should be protected by the same restrictions on interrogation of Israel citizens, where any use of force is strictly prohibited. The court case was delayed repeatedly as the government promised to review the rules, but it was finally heard last Monday before the Israel's High Court of Justice.
Dorit Benish, the state attorney, argued that the General Security Service -- the secret police who do many interrogations of Palestinians -- used force only to prevent future acts of terrorism.
"It is impossible to stop terrorism unless the GSS can use certain methods," she told the high court.
"I don't buy the argument that this is the only way to get information on terrorist acts," said Avigdor Feldman, who brought the case before the court. "We are not in such an emergency situation that we should trespass the boundaries of a democratic, civilized country."
The debate troubles those who feel that Israel, partly born of the worst human rights tragedy of modern times, now defends its violations of human rights.
"A society that becomes used to this, who is indifferent to torture of others, is an ill society," said Ms. Gozansky, the Knesset member. "It happens when you consider the people who are victims of torture as half-human."
Geneva treaty signed
Her legislation would put into Israeli law the prohibitions of the 1984 Geneva Convention Against Torture. The treaty was signed by Israel in 1991 but does not become law until it is adopted by the Knesset.
"It would be nice to have in Israel's code a law against torture. But our problem is not torture. Our problem is terrorism," said Mr. Sneh, a physician and former head of the Israeli Civil Administration of the occupied territories, who opposes the legislation.
"Those people who advocate human rights have the luxury of saying what should not be done to counter terrorism. They don't say what should be done," he said. "It's immoral. They can't enjoy being sheltered by the army while washing their hands and appearing as saints."
"Even when you are in a war against terror, there are limits you must put on yourself, or you become a terrorist yourself," argues Knesset member Haim Oron, a supporter of the legislation. "I think a society needs to declare those limits."
There are new attempts to do that. The public disclosure of a form signed by doctors who examine prisoners prompted the Israel Medical Federation last month to complain that the form "constitutes cooperating with torture."
The form asks for the doctor's agreement that the prisoner is fit to be tied up, forced to stand for a prolonged period, to have his head covered or to be put in solitary confinement.
Dr. Miriam Zangan, head of the federation, complained the form "does not befit a doctor [and] violates ethical norms." The federation told its members not to sign it.
"We've been waiting all these years for someone to come forward with this," Mr. Stanley said of the form, which he said had been signed routinely by doctors. "Israel is not a society where people blow the whistle very much."
Leah Tzemel, an Israeli lawyer representing Palestinians, believes she understands why.
"If every morning every Israeli drinks this medicine: a little bit of 'security,' a little bit of paranoia, a little bit of 'They want to throw us into the sea,' a little bit of 'All the world is against us,' it cleans your conscience greatly," she said.
"What really frightens me as a Jew is how easy it is to acquire racist attitudes, how easy it is to stop seeing Palestinians as human beings."