TEL AVIV (Nov. 14)
Casualties of the explosion that destroyed Israeli military headquarters in Tyre, south Lebanon Thursday were officially put at 89 dead and 56 injured today. The dead included 75 Israeli military and civilian personnel and 14 Arabs, the latter Palestinians and Lebanese under detention. Twenty-eight Israelis and 28 Arabs were injured while 21 others in the building escaped or were extricated from the rubble unhurt.
A national day of remembrance was declared for the victims tomorrow, commencing at sundown today. The Israeli dead were soldiers, border policemen, security officials and members of the military government’s civilian aid unit.
Funeral services have already been held for 51 of the Israelis, who were buried Friday. Others will be laid to rest tomorrow. The Cabinet decreed that flogs will not be flown at half-mast in order to differentiate the day of remembrance from a day of national mourning
Meanwhile, uncertainty surrounded the cause of the blast which was initially attributed to a powerful car bomb and later to explosives concealed inside the seven story building. Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai told reporters after today’s Cabinet meeting that "The experts have established beyond any doubt that it was not a sabotage action." According to Modai, it seems to have been a tragic accident.
But a senior army officer criticized the Minister for making such statements while the committee appointed by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to investigate the disaster is still at work. He said Modai apparently misunderstood Chief of Staff Gen. Rafael Eitan. who, according to the officer, told the Cabinet that the cause of the explosion was unclear and sabotage was not completely ruled out.
Similarly, acting Cabinet Secretary Michael Nir declined to offer an assessment of the cause. He told reporters that Gen. (res.) Meir Zorea who heads the investigating committee, had firmly refused to give the Cabinet a definitive statement as to what touched off the blast. The committee is expected to make its report before the end of this week.
Teams of police experts and army engineers are sifting through the rubble. One theory is that the explosion was caused by leakage of cooking gas stored in cylinders on one of the floors of the building. The experts reported that when they inspected what had been the ground floor and basement of the structure they found none of the signs typical of an explosive device. The building collapsed downward, the higher floors crashing into the lower ones. No debris or shrapnel was sent flying sideways as would have been the case had an explosive device detonated, the experts reported. But if there was a gas leakage, no evidence has been found yet to indicate what caused it.
Meanwhile the curfew on Tyre since Thursday was lifted this morning and the main highway from the Israeli border was re-opened to traffic. Chief of Staff Gen. Rafael Eitan thanked local Lebanese who had helped in the rescue operations. Leaders of the Tyre community said they would come to Israel to attend funeral services for the Israeli victims.
The disaster was the worst to befall Israeli forces in Lebanon since the war ended in that country. It has already had sharp political repercussions. The reaction in some quarters — mainly the opposition parties — has been to pull Israeli forces out of Lebanon as speedily as possible. The government, especially Defense Minister Sharon, has sharply rejected such suggestions. Asked if the tragedy would affect the deployment of the Israeli army in Lebanon, Eitan told reporters "It must not be allowed to."
One opposition spokesman demanded that Sharon accept ministerial responsibility for the "Tyre mishap" and resign. Others criticized Sharon for attending a Herut political meeting Thursday night and then a festive celebration at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovoth while Israeli soldiers were still pulling bodies out of the rubble in Tyre. A Defense Ministry spokesman dismissed the charges as "not worth comment"
Modai, who is chairman of the Ministerial Ceremonial Committee, said the Knesset would hold a brief memorial service tomorrow, and all official functions will be cancelled, as of this evening. Radio and television will be "suitably muted" according to Modai.