ISRAELI interrogators are still torturing Palestinian prisoners despite Israel's peace accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization, according to a study issued this week by a leading United States human rights organization.
Human Rights Watch/Middle East (HRW) accuses the Israeli authorities of operating ``a calibrated system of ... low-intensity torture,'' combining a variety of physical and psychological interrogation techniques to extract confessions or information from detainees.
``We have found no substantial shift in the methods used'' since Israel and the PLO signed the limited self-rule agreement for Palestinians in the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip, says James Rone, a principal author of the report.
The Israeli Army, which is heavily criticized in the report, said in a statement it ``unequivocally'' denied the allegations of torture. Its interrogators ``strictly abide'' by rules forbidding the ill treatment of suspects, the statement added.
Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, however, acknowledged to reporters that ``during the occupation of the territories, there were deeds that were regrettable.
``The only way to put an end to it is to withdraw'' from the West Bank and Gaza, as Israeli troops are due to do under the autonomy accord, he added.
The HRW report coincided with an unprecedented Israeli television program documenting the torture of suspects.
Although local and international human rights groups have long alleged that Israeli Army and Shin Bet (General Security Service) interrogators use methods that amount to torture, Israeli television reporters have shied away from the subject.
``This was taboo as long as Israel was committed to maintaining control over the territories,'' complains one Israeli human rights activist. ``Now Israel is backing off the occupation, the climate is more appropriate.''
HRW, whose report is based partly on the testimony of a former interrogator's assistant as well as accounts by detainees, finds that Shin Bet officials have scaled down their use of direct violence since 1992 and now ``rely more extensively on sustained psychological pressures and physical pressures ... which fall short of direct violence but cause severe suffering nonetheless.''
SLEEP deprivation, blindfolding or hooding, and prolonging painful body positions are routine, detainees report. Suspects are often held in tiny spaces called ``closets,'' or in deliberately overcooled cells, and subjected to degrading treatment such as being forced to eat and use the lavatory at the same time.
In many cases, the report alleges, suspects are beaten during questioning, especially when they are in the Army's hands.
Although the Israeli Army has withdrawn from Jericho and most of Gaza, it remains in full control of almost all the West Bank, and human rights workers say they have detected no change in the way suspects there are interrogated.
The number of detainees under interrogation at any one time appears to have dropped since the withdrawal, according to Mr. Rone, and at the same time, the targets of interrogation have changed since last September, when Israel and the PLO signed their accord.
``The target has shifted to include more non-PLO people'' such as members of radical Muslim groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad, Rone says, ``and more opponents of the peace process'' within the PLO.
Although some human rights activists here regret that Israeli television has dealt with the question of torture only as the Army prepares to hand over security duties in the occupied territories to Palestinian policemen, it is still relevant to the autonomy period, they say.
Under the autonomy agreement, the Palestinian authorities are obliged to hand over to Israel anyone seeking refuge in the autonomous area after committing a crime in Israel. Palestinian negotiators sought, and won, assurances in the agreement that such suspects would be treated according to ``internationally accepted norms of human rights and the rule of law.''