Looked away behind the gray concrete and barbed-wire walls of the maximum security prison of Ashkelon are 400 Arab "security prisoners" - most of them condemned to spend the rest of their lives in a curious limbo.

These men are neither Israeli citizens nor common criminal. They are for the most part Palestinians, the majority of them from the occupied territories, who have been caught engaging in, or plotting, acts of violence against the state of Israel.

To the Israelis they are simply terrorists and murderers, their crimes considered worse than those of ordinary criminals. The prisoners consider themselves, according to the prison authorities, to be freedom fighters in a just war, and even behind bars they remain highly motivated and politicized.

To give them prisoner-of-war status is out of the question, as far as Israel is concerned, because this would recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinian organizations to which they belong. Yet, privately, Israeli officials speculate that if there is to be a peace troop between Israel and the Arabs some of the prisoners here might be [WORD ILLEGIBLE] in an amnesty.

The prisoners of Ashkelon, 30 miles south of Tel Aviv, near the Gaza Stip, have become a focus of national attention in Israel. In the last three months they have engaged in interminent hunger and work strikes to protest their living conditions. Sympathy strikes have been organized in other Israel prisons and their cause has been taken up by relatives demonstrating on the West Bank and by a small band of Israeli human rights activists.

There are about 3,100 non-Israeli prisoners in Israeli jails, according to official sources, and about 80 per cent of them are security prisoners, not common criminals. In Ashkelon prison, no one is serving less than a 15-year sentence and 350 are condemned to life sentences.

They live cramped together, 10, 20, sometimes 30 to a cell, so closely packed that there is little room to step between them when they are sleeping. There are no chairs, tables, not even beds. They sleep on rubber mats less than a third of an inch thick. There are no dining halls. The prisoners are brought buckets of food, which they eat on the floor of their cells.

According to Felicia Langer, an Israeli lawyer representing one of the Ashkelon prisoners, the hunger strikers have no political demands other than to be treated the same as Israeli prisoners. Langer, a leading activist and a member of Israel's Communist Party, is well-known in Israel for her defense of human rights in the occupied territories.

The authorities say the hunger strikes are nothing more than another attempt to harm the state of Israel. Police Minister Shlomo Hillel was quoted recently as saying that the security prisoners had committed murder and sabotage against Israel while they were free and that that now, from behind bars, they were just throwing "propaganda bombs."

The authorities insist that, for the most part, the security prisoners are treated not worse than common criminals.

Authorities readily admit that there is a serious problem of overcrowding. Prison Service Commissioner Haim Levi said that the average living space per prisoner in Israel is about 2.4 square yards, less than one-third the average in many Western countries. In Hebron Prison, on the occupied West Bank, the prisoners have less than one square yard of living space, Levi said.

The prison authorities also say that there are no beds for security prisoners because they might break them up and use them for weapons. The warden of Ashkelon prison, David idstelfeld, told me that the real reason was that there was no room in the cells for beds.

Besides overcrowding, the prisoners also have a wide range of other complaints concerning food, medical attention, visits and reading materials.

The International Red Cross is allowed access to Israeli prisons. In January, it issued a statement saying that, although there had been some improvements," a number of problems that have been raised regularly by the Red Cross have not been solved. One such problem is overcrowding. In addition, some improvements relating to medical services, cultural facilities and family contacts suggested by the delegates and mentioned to the Red Cross by the detainees on strike in Ashkelon . . . have not been implemented. The Red Cross considers that these problems should be solved quickly, particularly the overcrowding."

Recently I was allowed to visit the prison at Ashkelon. The main building where the cells are located is an old Taggert Ford - one of the many forts that the British built 40 years ago to combat Arab violence opposed to Zionism and the British Mandate. Most are still used by the Israelis.

Warden Distefeld said that most of his prisoners were better educated than common criminals and that they were highly motivated and ardent supporters of the Palestinian cause.

One prisoner, the leader of a guerilla band in the mountains around Hebron, had killed his brother for a security lapse, the warden said. Another, cornered and wounded by Israelis security forces, had calmly amputated his own damaged leg with an ax and continued firing at the Israelis until captured.

"You cannot expect quiescence from men such as this," the warden said.

He considered overcrowding his biggest problem. He said that the prison system could not keep pace with the security forces who were every day rounding up new terrorists.

Prisoners at Ashkelon are allowed to exercise in the prison yard two hours each day. From 2 p.m. until 4 p.m. they may work in prison shops. Those who were on strike and refused to work, however, had to remain in their cells 22 hours a day.

Besides overcrowding, the warden said, the life of a security prisoner differed from a common criminal in only three respects. Security prisoners are allowed only one visit a month instead of two, and then only be a close relative. They are not eligible for time off for good behavior, and they are not allowed to have a temporary parole after having served a third of their term, as are common criminals.

The medical facilities at Ashkelon appeared adequate and the prisoners have frequent access to doctors and dentists.

The food in the prison kitchen appeared adequate in terms of quantity and a balanced diet. The prisoners were lunching on rice, fried fish with vegetable sauce and fruit. They complain of hunger, however.

Improvements are being made. A new wing is being built to relieve overcrowding. Hot water is being piped into the new cells. The diet is being improved. The warden insists that these are all normal and continuing improvements and not the result of pressure from the prisoners, as has been reported in the Israeli press.

The warden said that during the hunger strike the prisoners had been force-fed with tubes down their throats. The strike was broken, said Distefeld, by transferring many of the offenders to different prisons around the country to break up their organization.

I saw no evidence of prisoners having been beaten or abused.

The strike leaders, however, have been singled out for special treatment, including solitary confinement. According to Langer, her client, Muhammed Basiso, is being kept at an disclosed place outside the prison in a darkened enclosure with no facilities to wash or to receive medical attention.

He is brought back into the prison only for interviews with her and the Red Cross.

Friday, Langer sught and won a high court ruling demanding that the prison authorities show cause why Basiso's living conditions should not be improved.

Although I was told I might see and speak with any prisoner during my recent visit, the warden told me that Basiso was not in the prison. It later was confirmed that, while the warden spoke Basiso was sitting in the next room with his lawyers and the deputy warden.