THE BEATINGS, it seems, go on. The defense minister says the orders are that they go on only during incidents of Palestinian violence, not before or after. But the testimony of victims and the evidence of reporters are that soldiers policing the West Bank do not so nicely limit use of their clubs. Considerations of appropriateness, proportionality and discretion appear regularly to surges of soldierly emotion and to calculations of deterrence. This makes what Americans recognize on their television screens as police brutality not simply an unfortunate excess but the essence of policy. The victims, moreover, are not just stone-throwing Palestinian Davids defying the Israeli Goliath. They are also law-abiding shopkeepers caught between protesters forcing them to close and soldiers using clubs to make them open. They are the settled element whose favor Israelis constantly try to cultivate to offset the kids and the detested PLO.
Some worry that Israel is getting a bad ''image,'' and of course it is. But its image is among Israel's lesser problems. The beatings are savage acts, they are wrong, and they amount to a demonstration of policy bankruptcy. No one familiar with the Mideast doubts that in the Palestinians the Israelis have an often vicious and politically irresponsible challenger. This is how the hard line comes to have such a following. But in the Palestinians the Israelis also have a fellow aggrieved people whose fate is linked inextricably to their own. This is why the moderate line in Israel must be strengthened, especially now.
Israelis, as they do when criticized by their few foreign friends, feel abandoned and are cool to appeals from those who will not directly share the consequences. Still, the feeling spreads in Israel that recent events have shredded any realistic hope of finding a decent accommodation with a subject population. This seems to have confirmed the views of many Israelis, both those who would harden the ''iron fist'' and those who would relax it in favor of negotiation. But it has evidently come as something of a revelation to the branch of the ruling Likud that wants to keep the West Bank and figured Palestinians would eventually accustom themselves to it. The drama of the Israeli elections coming next November lies precisely in whether voters can break with a policy that rests on the sickening decision to shoot and beat unarmed civilians.