Last month when confidential State Department cables were disclosed alleging methodical Israeli use of torture against Palestinian prisoners, Israel began figuratively waving the red and white insignia of the Red Cross as evidence that the charges were unfounded.

There is persuasive evidence, however, that the system of checks and balances provided by the watchdog presence of the International Committee of the Red Cross is of limited effectiveness because of a combination of restraints. Some are rooted in the shortcomings of the Red Cross and some are imposed by its watchful hosts in the occupied territories -- the Israeli Army.

Israeli Justice Minister Shmuel Tamir, in a speech to the Knesset (parliament), used the Red Cross to rebut findings by the American consulate in East Jerusalem -- published by The Washington Post -- that mistreatment of Arab detainees is "systematic." Tamir said the Red Cross last year investigated 1,300 cases of suspected abuse, and found that in only 6 percent of the cases was there reason for more detailed investigation.

"In all those cases which the International Red Cross had asked for closer investigation, no instances of maltreatment had been found," Tamir declared.

The statement struck even some of Tamir's colleagues in the Knesset as surprising -- given the volatility of the Israeli-Arab relations in the occupied territories and the large number of suspected terrorists picked up for questioning daily -- but it remains uncontested by the International Red Cross.

The Red Cross traditionally has sidestepped political imbroglios and rarely has made critical public statements of its Israeli hosts in order to protect its limited access to Arab prisoners.

Interviews with officials of the organization, former Palestinian detainees, West Bank human rights activists and civil libertarians revealed a pattern of institutionalized restraints that often frustrate efforts by the Red Cross to prove or refute claims of torture or systematic abuse of prisoners.

The restraints, coupled with the sometimes confusing circumstances surrounding claims of mistreatment, compelled a Red Cross physician whose job here was to examine prisoners for evidence of brutality to return to Geneva because he could not justify his presence.

While numberous factors have contributed to frustrating human rights defenders in their attempts to conclusively prove or refute claims of torture, the most prominent among them appears to be Israel's insistence on holding security detainees incommunicado for 14 days before allowing Red Cross delegates to interview them.

When asked if the 14-day lapse hampers efforts to monitor Israeli treatment of prisoners, Peter Kung, head of the Red Cross mission here, replied circumspectly, "I don't believe 14 days is an optimum situation, but I think it's quite a good step forward. Nothing is ideal."

Israeli officcials say in answer to criticism that the 14-day delay is necessary for securlty reasons, pointing out that there are unique aspects of terrorism investigation not found in normal criminal cases. Since terrorism usually involves extensive conspiracy, they point out, more time is needed to unravel suspected intent, and, possibly, prevent a bombing or attack on civilians.

West Bank human rights activists who have worked closely with the Red Cross say, however, that the 14-day delay all but kills any hope of documenting specific allegations of torture beyond the uncorroborated testimony of the prisoner.

"The most intensive period of interrogation comes within the first few days, when the authorites, understandably, are the most anxious about getting information fast. There is even an element of panic if they suspect they can head off a terrorist bombing, or whatever," said one civillibertarian in the West Bank.

Like others intervicwed, he was reluctant to be quoted by name for fear of jeopardizing cooperative arrangements that the Red Cross maintains as part of a monitoring network in the occupied areas, or for fear of compromising the Red Cross' relationship with the Israeli government.

Palestinian detainecs who have been released also said that if mistreatment is inflicted by Israeli Army interrogators, it invariably occurs within the first two or three days after an arrest.

"They know how long it takes for the marks to go away," said one Palestinian college student who was picked up in Jenin late last year and held for five days, during which he was interrogated continuously and subjected to some mistreatment, including, he said, beating on the genitals with a stick.

The student charged in an interview that his interrogators scrupulously avoided mistreatment that would leave lasting marks. Instead, he said, soldiers would sneak up behind him during questioning and hit him hard on both ears simultaneously with the palms of their hands.

As they have in almost every instance of alleged mistreatment, officials of the West Bank military governor's office denied those charges, and repeated the government contention that recurring claims of torture are "groundless."

According to Gen. Avraham Orli, administrator of the occupied territories, the press is being used for political advantage by Palestinian nationalist groups.

"I don't know of any military administration that has taken such a beating in the world press, yet which has done so much to protect human rights," said Orli.

But the critics of the government's 14-day interview delay argue that it will be impossible to disprove the charges of widespread mistreatment until Israel allows the Red Cross to interview detainees during the first days of their incarceration.

The 14-day policy was an outgrowth of negotiations between the Red Cross and the Israeli government after 11 years of the Red Cross being permitted, officially, to interview detainees after a 28-day interrogation period. In practice, the 28 days often was stretched to three or four months, sources said.

The Red Cross established its delegation here immediately after the 1967 six-day war, primarily to deal with the repatriation of prisoners of war. As the occupation dragged on, it broadened its activity to cover the rights of "protected persons" under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the use of "physical or moral coercion" against persons in cooupied territories.

The prohibition applies to "murder, torture, corporal punishment, mutilation and... any other measures of brutality whether applied by civilian or military agents."

Israel, while a signatory to the Fourth Geneva Convention, does not recognize its applicability to the West Bank and Gaza strip. But it has voluntarily allowed Red Cross delegation to monitor occupation activities.

Following 11 years of limited access to detainees after 28 days, and after the London Sunday Times published a detailed investigation of torture allegations, the government approached the Red Cross in October of 1977 and offered it access to detainees after seven days, providing that a government witness was present.

The Red Cross refused the offer because of its worldwide policy against permitting government witnesses during interviews of prisoners. The army finally agreed to a 14-day period, with a suspension clause saying that permission may be denied for "imperative security reasons."

Kung of the Red Cross declined to disclose how many times the Israeli authorities have suspended the 14-day clause.

"It is not applied as a matter of routine, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen," he said.

Since January 1978, the government has provided the Red Cross with a list of arrests of "protected persons," meaning all non-Israelis. Several West Bank human rights workers said the lists frequently are incomplete, but Kung said, "It is complete. They don't forget names, because they know we would be informed by our own soruces."

During last year -- the first year of the new agreement -- Red Cross delegates made 1,300 visits to 800 Arab detainees. Kung confirmed Tamir's assertion that only 6 percent -- or about 78 persons -- had their cases submitted to the authorities for "further inquiries," meaning that three was cause for complaint.

Kung said the Israelis generally respond promptly, although prisoners who have filed complaints and human rights lawyers say there frequently are long delays.

"When we get an allegation, we have to take it as such -- an allegation. We were not there when the mistreatment was supposed to have occurred. So when we get an answer, we have to take it as an answer, and accept it," Kung said.

He would not say in how many instances corrective steps were taken by the authorities, saying, "When they make the inquiries, that is corrective action."

Other sources said, however, that because corrective action would be tantamount to an admission that mistreatment exists, it does not occur. They noted Tamir's own reckoning that of all the allegations checked, none required action resulting from proved mistreatment.

By all accounts, part of the Red Cross' shortcoming lies in a relatively small staff trying to deal with a large problem.It has 15 delegates in Israel, spread through offices in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Gaza, and it can personally see only about one-quarter of all Arab prisoners in 14 Israeli prisons.

With an operating budget slightly over $500,000 it performs other traditional Red Cross jobs along with interviewing prisoners.

Critics of the Red Cross also say that the delegation in Israel having become institutionalized during its 12 years here, lacks the aggressiveness of newer, less established delegations elsewhere in the world.

"This delegation is suffering from the length of its existence. Sometimes they (Israeli officials) can feed them a little sugar, and they will happily report back to Geneva that they are making progress. They need a little more guts here," said a lawyer who has worked with West Bank Arabs.

In an interview in his Tel Aviv office, however, Kung indicated that the Red Cross is not about to wage a political struggle with Israel.

"Nothing is totally satisfactory. Things could always be better. But it is satisfactory in the sense that before we could never see prisoners at all, and now we can," he added.