The pronouncements of Israeli leaders are belied by their actions. In tones defiant, self-righteous and, in some cases, abhorrent, Israelis insist they have adopted the humane course: they will beat Palestinians rather than shoot them. The Nobel Peace Prize does not await the framers of this policy.

But at the same time, the Israeli press says that army psychologists now have to deal with troops who've been ordered to administer beatings. The beatings were reported as authorized and announced by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin. A world-class klutz at public relations, Rabin said Israel would use "might, power and beatings" to crush civil insurrection in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There is no equating these things, but the beatings seem to have taken a toll on both the Palestinians being beaten and the Israelis doing the beating.

Psychologists have long been fascinated with the question of to what extent and under what circumstances a person might violate his own moral code. They have studied and tried to duplicate probable actions in the laboratory. In experiments, people fooled into thinking they were subjecting someone to pain did what they were told. In order to please authority, these people were sadistic beyond their own expectations. As with soldiers in wartime, context was everything. Given a different context -- peacetime for the soldier -- they would revert to ordinary behavior.

But killing in wartime by combatants is ordinary and consistent with Western morality. Not so the killing of innocent civilians -- or the beating of them simply because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When an individual pleases authority by crossing a moral threshold, he may later be plagued by guilt and remorse. There's dissonance between his own moral standards and what he was ordered to do. That's the time to send in the shrinks.

For all the self-justifying rhetoric of Israeli leaders, the new responsibility of army psychologists acknowledges that young men are being ordered to cross moral frontiers. While an Israeli Embassy spokesman here maintains that "adequate force," not indiscriminate beatings, has been authorized, troops have beaten women, reportedly broken the hands of teen-agers on purpose, set upon old men, burst into homes in the middle of the night and thrashed inhabitants. About 200 Palestinians have been hospitalized with broken bones or other serious injuries. Punishment is meted out on the spot, sometimes -- inevitably -- not on the basis of guilt, but of ethnicity. The Israeli Army, once a proud fighting force, has descended to the tactics of a goon squad.

Israel faces no good choices in the West Bank or, especially, Gaza -- a squalid, impoverished strip that no country wants. For the present, at least, it must contain the riots -- somehow. It's no fun to be on the receiving end of a rock. It, too, can be a lethal weapon, and troops trained for combat are ill-prepared for what amounts to civil insurrection. Suddenly, "the front" can be everywhere, and there's no distinguishing between combatants and civilians. In Vietnam, American troops sometimes reacted to such situations with excess. The massacre at My Lai is the most notorious example.

Israel has lost the ability to discriminate. It has been been censured and scorned, lambasted and vilified for so long that it has become tone deaf to criticism. Critics of the beatings are dismissed as if they were Third World diplomats equating Zionism with racism or naive peaceniks who wouldn't know a riot from a folk dance. They are neither. They are merely pointing out what Israelis themselves acknowledged by presenting their psy-chologists with a new caseload.

Israelis bristle when their nation is compared to South Africa. Probably, the comparison is overdrawn. But there is this: in South Africa some conscripts have refused to serve in the black townships, and some young men have refused military service altogether. Their actions amount to moral reprimands, individual indictments of government policy. To a degree, the same thing is happening in Israel. There, too, some soldiers have refused to serve in the occupied territories. For a soldier, the hardest terrain to hold is one mined with moral ambiguity.

For Israel, for any democracy, there comes a time when the strained conscience of a soldier says more about a policy than the rhetoric of politicians. The United States had to undergo a similar self-examination in Vietnam -- especially because its survival was not at stake. In Israel, psychologists deal with troubled troops. But it's not the troops who are crazy. It's the government's policy.