State Department Officials Differ with Eban’s Assessment on Mideast War Outlook

State Department officials said today that they did not share the view of Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban that there was no real crisis threatening the outbreak of a general Arab-Israeli war. They said the United States remained convinced that a “powder-keg” situation exists, and voiced concern over Israeli and Egyptian “escalation.”

The officials referred to Israel’s newly announced “search and destroy” policy in which pre-emptive strikes are made against terrorist bases ‘and to the Suez situation. In the officials’ view, this new strategy increases the risk of general war and complicates U.S. diplomacy on the eve of the visit of Jordan’s King Hussein to Washington as President Nixon’s guest.

Egyptian artillery barrages across the Suez Canal were also condemned as an “escalation” bringing closer the specter of general conflict. Officials said Egypt was employing the same philosophy that underlies the “search and destroy” air attacks. Egypt has claimed that its shelling is a form of “preventive” action to forestall Israeli “aggressive” preparations along the canal. Officials disagreed with Mr. Eban’s recently expressed views here which they said minimized the chances of general war. On the contrary, they regarded the situation as having further deteriorated. State Department sources could not say precisely when the proposed Big Four conference at the United Nations would be held. While they were not aware of a fixed date as yet, officials said that despite Israel’s objections, the talks would. sooner or later, be held. To reinforce their argument that the Mideast was on the brink of open warfare, officials cited a statement submitted March 19 by Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Secretary Laird said that “in the Middle East the almost daily clashes indicate that the Arab-Israeli conflict verges on an active state of war, with the imminent threat of expansion. This situation is complicated by the continuing flow of Soviet arms to their Arab clients.” The Defense Secretary cautioned that “the Soviets are increasing their naval capabilities in the Mediterranean, as well as increasing their involvement in Middle East affairs.”

A new artillery and tank battle erupted between Israeli and Egyptian forces on the Suez Canal early today and spread over almost the entire length of the waterway before it ended shortly after noon. Each side blamed the other for starting the battle, the first in six days, which raged for nearly four hours.

An Israeli military spokesman said the Egyptians fired a single shell at Israeli positions in the Small Bitter Lake area at 6:30 a.m. local time. He said Israeli gunners did not return the fire until two hours later when massed Egyptian artillery opened up from Port Tewfik in the south to Kantara near the canal’s northern entrance. No Israeli casualties were reported. The spokesman said Israeli tanks battered Egyptian oil refineries but did not say which refineries were hit. In recent fighting, Israeli guns blasted the refineries at Port Suez destroying an estimated 300,000 tons of oil and setting fires that lasted several days. The spokesman said Israeli gunners observed a UN cease-fire order at noon today but the Egyptians continued sporadic shelling for nearly a half hour more. An Egyptian military communique said today that the Panamanian-flag ship Khalida was hit by an Israeli shell in Port Suez but gave no other details. The communique did not mention new hits on the Suez oil refineries but claimed that Egyptian “counter-fire” destroyed nine Israeli tanks and a large amount of other equipment including rockets. It also claimed “heavy casualties” on the Israeli side and put Egyptian losses as one killed, nine wounded and one vehicle destroyed.

New fighting broke out along the Israel-Jordan border today where a 70-minute machinegun duel was fought south of the Sea of Galilee. No casualties were reported.

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