JERUSALEM, JAN. 21 -- Israel's new policy of employing beatings rather than firearms against Palestinian protesters in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip came under strong criticism today from Israeli civil libertarians, two left-of-center members of parliament and a representative of an American Jewish organization.

{In Washington, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said, "We are disturbed by the adoption of a policy . . . that calls for beatings as a means to restore or maintain order." Asked about the Israeli contention that beatings are more humane than shooting protesters, Redman replied, "We believe both are wrong."}

The criticism inside the Israeli establishment coincided with a statement from a senior Israeli military source that the policy was designed to "strike fear" in the hearts of Palestinians demonstrating against the 20-year-old occupation.

At least 38 Palestinians have died in the current wave of violence, which began Dec. 9. No Israelis have been killed. The strategy of using beatings instead of shooting, in an effort to curb casualties, was announced Tuesday by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin. After touring the Gaza town of Rafah and a refugee camp today, Rabin said the level of violence was "down almost to nil," meaning curfews could be lifted soon.

The Army eased curfews today on four refugee camps in Gaza so food could be delivered and people could go to work. Four other camps remained under strict curfew, some for the 13th day.

In the West Bank, two villages and one camp were placed under curfew anew. The Arab-run Palestine Press Service reported small demonstrations around Hebron, Ramallah and Nablus.

Inside Israel, a firebomb was thrown at a school bus last night on the highway linking the Mediterranean coast to Galilee.

The bomb did not hit the bus and it failed to explode. Police said they believed militant Arabs from villages along the road were responsible, and sent reinforcements to help protect traffic.

A senior Israeli military source briefing Israeli journalists said the new policy of using physical force instead of ammunition was proving more effective than previous tactics, since demonstrators had not been deterred by tear gas and knew the troops hestitated to fire on them. "The new policy does not mean that we beat people at will, but the policy is selective and nips unrest in the bud," he said.

Harry Wall, representative here of the U.S.-based B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League, told state radio the policy will hurt Israel's image in the United States as did its 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Retired judge Eli Natan of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel condemned the policy "which involves severe beatings and serious cases of injuries, such as fractures." The group added that "these methods are used as punishment and as a deterrent and even to force shop owners to open their stores."

The newspaper Haaretz reported today that military psychologists have begun field studies on the long-term effects of the new policy, amid fears that soldiers will take advantage of it and use force as a means to relieve their own tensions and in situations where it is unnecessary.

In a visit to Gaza, Yossi Sarid and Dedi Zucker, left-of-center members of parliament from the Citizens' Rights Movement, visited Shifa Hospital and also condemned the new policy.

"Rabin's promise to break bones has been realized successfully and horribly," they said in a statement. "It breaks our hearts to see Israeli soldiers as the victims of a political echelon which has completely lost its composure."

Relief workers at the United Nations health center in Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip said they treated 22 severely beaten Palestinians, including eight with fractures and head wounds requiring hospital treatment.

In the West Bank, five Palestinian residents of the village of Qabatiya were taken to a hospital with broken limbs, charging they had been beaten by border policemen.