Amid the routine flow of cable traffic that came clattering through the State Department's teletypes last May 31 was a confidential message from Jerusalem that opened a new chapter in the old debate over charges that Israel violates the human rights of Palestinian prisoners in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

That message, and other cables from the American Consulate in Jerusalem, were at variance with the 1978 State Department human rights report on conditions in the West Bank. The department stated last year that it had no evidence that Israel followed "a consistent practice or policies of using torture" against Arab political suspects.

The new cables, however, reported "the possibility that the use of brutality in the interrogation of Arab political prisoners is a systematic practice, involving the use of trained personnel, backed up by far-reaching administrative support, and protected by standard methods of suppressing complaints and blocking their investigation."

They described three levels of abuse during interrogation of arrested Palestinians, including the most severe treatment that, the cables alleged, includes "refrigeration, use of electricity, hanging by the hands or feet, extreme forms of sexual sadism, interrogation accompanied by starvation, enforced sleeplessness."

Israel has consistently denied charges of brutality since its occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. It issued a denial yesterday on the recent reporting from the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.

"These allegations, even though they have been published from time to time, are baseless, and have been refuted over and over again," said the statement, which was relayed from Tel Aviv by the Israeli embassy in Washington.

An Israeli embassy spokesman told The Washington Post on Monday that "appropriate Israeli authorities" would be made available to "discuss and explain any specific case" of alleged brutality. The spokesman was told that the newspaper would accept any Israeli government proposal of cooperation but not as a pre-condition to publishing this article.

The new classified reports from the U.S. consulate on Israeli interrogation practices were the first U.S. diplomatic reporting suggesting systematic Israeli abuse of Arab prisoners. These reports were said by State Department officials to have figured in what they described as sharpened language in the 1979 human rights report due to be made public today or tomorrow.

In its 1978 report the State Department said, "we know of no evidence... that Israel follows a consistent practice or policy of using torture."

The new human rights report, The Washington Post learned, contains the following statements:

"Arabs in the occupied territories, including some who are actually in custody and who have reported that they were subject to mistreatment, continue to allege, publicly and privately, that mistreatment of detainees is a systematic practice.

"The accumulation of reports, some from credible sources, makes it appear that instances of mistreatment have occurred."

One high-level State Department official described the new wording as "dynamite" despite its seemingly bland phrasing. The reference to "credible" reports of abuse and "systematic" mistreatment without an accompanying demurrer was cited by close official watchers of the process as markedly stronger in tone than the previous reporting.

The first summary reporting from the Jerusalem consulate to awaken the interest of high-level State Department officials in Washington was the May 31 document designated "Jerusalem 1500."

It detailed the cases of 15 Arabs applying for U.S. visas and who were being investigated by consular officials because they had been arrested for "security offenses." Under questioning by an Arabic-speaking U.S. consular officer, all 15 "claimed that they had been beaten or otherwise tortured during interrogation sessions which followed their arrest," the cable from the consulate reported.

Jerusalem 1500 concluded: "Israeli torture of Arab prisoners in the occupied territories may be a widespread and even common practice."

In an ensuing cable on Nov. 30, 1978 -- this was Jerusalem 3239 and classified "secret" -- the consulate reported on another 14 cases and drew the more severe conclusion that:

"Physical mistreatment is systematically used on many Arab security suspects interrogated in the West Bank. It seems clear from the research of Ms. Johnson that.. Israeli practices on the West Bank go beyond acceptable civilian norms."

These words were cabled by Donald A. Kruse, deputy principal officer of the Jerusalem consulate. The Ms. Johnson to whom he referred is Alexandra U. Johnson, 32, who was at the time a junior Foreign Service officer assigned to the normally humdrum job of interviewing visa applicants for admission to the United States.

The Jerusalem consular job was her first active-duty assignment abroad. Previously she had served as an analyst in the State Department's Intelligence and Research Division and had received Arabic-language training in Beirut and Tunis.

Johnson was the drafter of both Jerusalem 1500 and Jerusalem 3239.

Johnson, who last week ended her six-year Foreign Service career, is a woman with a precise manner and less than the usual diplomatic circumspection. Her record at State includes reports of disagreements with superiors and colleagues as well as commendations for her professional ability.

During her language training in Beirut, she disregarded an embassy official's order to stay in a hotel near the embassy in Beirut's Moslem area rather than the distant home where she lived with her mother and grandmother in a Christian area.

Despite these infractions, Johnson's first cable, Jerusalem 1500, gained considerable attention in the State Department. The second cable -- 3239 -- also was distributed at the highest levels. Both were considered of such high priority they were brought to the attention of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

Both had been signed, under normal diplomatic practice, by Consul-General William Newlin, the top-ranking U.S. diplomat in Jerusalem. Further, Johnson's second report was prefaced by an acknowledgment from her superiors that supported her overall conclusions.

"Although the post does not necessarily agree with all the deductions and conclusions contained in the report," wrote Kruse, "the weight of the evidence points to the validity of her general conclusion that physical mistreatment is systematically used.... It seems clear from the research of Ms. Johnson that... Israeli practices on the West Bank go beyond acceptable civilian norms."

Johnson had gone to Jerusalem in 1977. Despite her experience in political analysis and fluent knowledge of Arabic, she was passed over for a political reporting position she sought in Cairo and was posted instead to the visa job.

At the Jerusalem consulate, she reviewed applications from Arabs and Israelis in Jerusalem and the West Bank of the Jordan River for tourist, student and immigrant visas to the United States.

The most exacting part of the job involved applications from Arabs who had been convicted in Israeli courts of membership in Palestinian guerrilla groups. U.S. law forbids granting visas to active members of such groups. Past visa officers, according to department officials, had routinely rejected visa applicants who had been convicted by the Israelis.

But Johnson, with her political background and language ability, began interviewing the applicants after finding contradictions in the initial court records she perused. She found in ensuing court records that the only evidence was the defendant's confession. She continued her interviewing of the men convicted of membership in illegal Palestinian organizations. One after another said he had confessed only after prolonged torture by Israeli interrogators.

Her interest in the subject of abuse during interrogations was sharpened by an incident at Israeli military occupation headquarters in Ramallah during which she said she was hit by a uniformed Israeli soldier while seeking access to the trial of an American citizen in an Israeli military court.Both the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv and the American consulate in Jerusalem made official protests to Israeli authorities about the episode in the spring of 1977.

One case in Johnson's reports involves a teen-ager who gave an older friend a ride on his bicycle. En route, according to an official account, the friend jumped off and scrawled an anti-Israel slogan on a wall. The tee-ager was arrested, interrogated under torture for 10 days, and eventually sentenced to a year in prison after he confessed to membership in an illegal organization, she found.

Not all of Johnson's applicants had such dramatic stories. But of 29 Palestinians charged with membership in illegal Palestinian groups who applied for visas over a 22-month period, she concluded that 15 had been imprisoned on the basis of false confessions elicited by torture. She also concluded that six appeared to have committed the offenses for which they were charged, although they all told Johnson they had been subjected to varying degrees of physical abuse.

The State Department's Visa Office here agreed with her on 26 of those cases, including the teen-aged bicycle rider, granting visas in 23 cases despite the Israeli police records. The other three cases are still under study at the State Department.

Johnson's reports indicate that she gradually began to suspect torture was a routine practice sanctioned by the Israeli military government on the West Bank and in Jerusalem. The men she interviewed spoke of similar instruments of torture in four different interrogation centers -- suggesting "standard-issue equipment," she reported. She also found "indications of elaborate installations," including hooks built into the walls where suspects could be hung and beaten.

The reports in Johnson's cables dealt only with torture during pretrial interrogation, and did not deal with conditions in the military prisons. Independent interviews with three of the men she spoke to confirm her report about torture during interrogation. None of the three reported being tortured after they were sentenced and sent to prison.

Johnson's reports were written in a methodical style built on extensive recitation of evidence and verbatim testimony. Accordingly, the cables -- particularly "Jerusalem 1500," which arrived first -- hit the State Department with considerable impact.

"Ah, yes, the famous 1500," recalled Arthur A. Houghton, a Middle East expert who saw the message in his position as special assistant to Vance. "It was widely read, because it called attention in a careful way to something we didn't normally hear about.

"It wasn't just the Israeli torture, you see," Houghton explained. "It was the suggestion that it was systematic."

Reports of Israeli torture were commonplace on the West Bank, a military occupation zone where Palestinian terrorism, often against civilian targets, and Israeli reprisals are the stuff of life. In 1977, the Sunday Times of London had published a detailed report saying that torture of Arab prisoners was "routine and organized." Israel had forcefully denied it.

The State Department, in preparing its 1978 human rights report, had examined the Times reports and concluded they were overstated. While there were "instances of brutality," the State Department said, "We know of no evidence... that Israel follows a consistent practice or policy of using torture..."

The Jerusalem cables had the potential of changing that. Here was evidence, signed by the highest-ranking U.S. official on the West Bank, concluding that "Israeli torture of Arab prisoners may be a systematic practice... a system requiring far-reaching administrative coordination."

"It made a difference in the way we looked at things," said Patt Derian, the assistant secretary of state for human rights. "It was credible. It was important."

It was clear that the Jerusalem cables would have to be reflected in the 1979 human rights report. Still, Derian was concerned that the information would be dismissed as political propaganda from the Arab camp.

"We have difficulty, writing this report," Derian said, "in not playing into somebody's hand. As soon as an issue like this is raised, you get into very heavy political implications. So people are always ready to feed us information that would sort of reflect badly on their enemies."

The department's Israel desk, according to various officials in the department, thought the Jerusalem cables might be one-sided. The U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv disputed the suggestion that West Bank torture might be "systematic" or sanctioned by higher authority, the officials said.

Following standard department practice, the Israel desk discussed the human rights information from Jerusalem with the Israeli government. Although the specific Israeli response is not known, the Israelis have said previously that instances of torture are aberrations that violate official policy. The Israel response to the Jerusalem cables was factored into the material shaping the 1979 report.

The State Department also checked with what officials describe as two other "major" independent sources to verify Johnson's reporting. One generally confirmed what the consular cables charged, informants reported, while the other characterized them as overblown and said only about 10 percent of Palestinian political detainees receive treatment resembling that described in the cables.

Approximately 1,600 persons were arrested by Israeli military occupation forces in the West Bank and Gaza during 1978, U.S. officials said.

Although the debate over the report within the department was never angry, according to the participants, all knew that reaction was sure to be. A mild report would be labeled a "whitewash" by Arabists -- as the 1978 report had been. But tougher language would bring a fierce response from the Israelis.

"Anything critical of Israel means an inevitable counterattack," Houghton said. "If you're going to make the case, you have to be absolutely certain of what you're saying or you'll be vulnerable."

As persuasive as the Jerusalem cables seemed to those who read them, there were unavoidable problems connected with them. There was no way to corroborate the firsthand accounts of the victims -- but as Kruse of the Jerusalem consulate observed, "this is a problem general in human rights reporting." Further, since Johnson had not seen any prisoners until after their release from prison, there was a time lag between her reports and the events she was reporting on.

The latest cases included in Johnson's reporting for Jersualem 1500 and 3239 stemmed from arrests in 1977, although Johnson later submitted a supplemental report on the testimony of 18 other applicants. Two reported mistreatment during investigations conducted last March.

In the end, the departmental negotiations over the human rights report came down to semantics. Would the West Bank torture be labeled a "practice"? If so, was it a "systematic practice"?

The questions were not finally settled until late last month. When the human rights report was delivered to Congress on Jan. 31, it reported Arab allegations that mistreatment is "systematic practice" and concluded that such reports "make it appear that instances of mistreatment have occurred."

The delivery of the report was not the only aspect of the Jerusalem cables story that ended on Jan. 31. On that day Alexandra U. Johnson, having been passed over for promotion to a tenured position, was formally separated from the Foreign Service.

Johnson had been "selected out" of the service after Newlin, her superior officer, had recommended against her promotion and a special panel reviewed her six-year record. The negative recommendation from Newlin came last spring, when Johnson was pressuring him to dispatch "Jerusalem 1500." State Department officials say that her severance had nothing to do with her human rights reporting; they attribute it to her earlier record and to Newlin's determination that she could not get along with her coleagues.

Newlin, in a career prospects statement dated Dec. 6, 1978, did say that Johnson "has displayed the ability to discriminate between allegations of mistreatment which have a high probability of truth, and self-serving allegations in which fact and invention are mixed."

Her superior's praise for the objectivity of her professional reporting and "considerable analytical ability" was drafted three months after Johnson had been briefly engaged to one of the Palestinians cited in her Jerusalem 1500 cable, a relationship which was known to some of her colleagues.

When it became clear that Johnson's career in the Foreign Service was nearing an end, sources anxious to get official attention for her stories of mistreatment showed her cables to reporters from the Sunday Times of London. The Times is closed because of a labor dispute. Reporters there, anxious to publicize material supporting their 1977 stories, brought the documents to The Washington Post.