TEL AVIV (Feb. 3)
Israel accused the United States today of exaggerating an incident yesterday in which a marine officer brandishing a loaded weapon prevented an Israeli tank squad from advancing toward a marine check point on the southern outskirts of Beirut.
The State Department said it viewed “such incidents very seriously” and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger told the House Armed Services Committee that it was his “continuing worry” that such incidents could escalate and cause “serious loss of life.”
But Israeli officials insisted today that the alleged confrontation was of minor consequence and occurred because the marine officer was unfamiliar with the demarcation line between the zone patrolled by the marines and that in which the Israel Defense Force operates. They expressed anger at what they termed American “over reaction.”
THE PENTAGON VERSION
According to the Pentagon version of events, Marine Capt. Charles Johnson approached an advancing column of three Israeli tanks near a marine checkpoint at the Beirut University’s science faculty at Reihan. The lead tank allegedly halted within “a foot” of the officer who asked to speak to the squad commander. The latter, an Israeli Lt. Col. not immediately identified dismounted after several minutes and asked to speak to a superior officer.
When the Israeli tanks indicated they would continue to advance, the marine officer leaped on top of the lead tank, loaded and cocked his 45 pistol (some versions said he carried a rifle) and warned that the tanks would advance only “over my dead body.” After several minutes, the Israeli tank column withdrew.
Weinberger was quoted saying that Capt. Johnson, commander of L Company, would receive a commendation for bravery.
ISRAEL DENIES GUN-POINT CONFRONTATION
The Israelis deny that a gun-point confrontation occurred. They said the marine officer apparently was unaware that the tanks were operating legitimately in the zone which Israeli and American officials had agreed only a day earlier was within the Israeli sector. They denied as well that the tank column was attempting to approach or pass through the marine checkpoint.
Israeli officers and marine officers, accompanied by the Military Attache of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut toured the area of yesterday’s incident today and redetermined the demarcation line. But the Israelis charged that the marines had neglected to follow procedures aimed at avoiding confrontations such as have occurred between Israeli and marine forces in recent weeks.
Those procedures, including a telephone “hot line” between marine headquarters and the Israeli command post, were agreed to at a meeting earlier this week between Col. Thomas Stokes, commander of the 1,200-man marine contingent, Gen. Amir Drori, Commander of the Israeli forces in Lebanon and U.S. special envoy Morris Draper. Arrangements were also made for calling meetings of local officers on both sides to avoid future misunderstandings. But the telephone or radio link was not used yesterday, the meeting of officers never took place and Col. Stokes refused to join Israeli officers on a tour of the demarcation line, the Israelis complained. For that reason, apparently, local commanders such as Capt. Johnson were unfamiliar with its precise location. The line runs several hundred yards east of an abandoned railroad track which parallels a highway where Israeli patrols make regular sweeps in search of ambushes from which Palestinian terrorists have been harassing Israeli military traffic in recent weeks causing some casualties. The marines and Lebanese army units jointly occupy the Beirut University campus which constitutes a “bulge” into the Israeli zone. The Israelis said they agreed to this as long as Lebanese army soldiers are present to prevent the possible use of the buildings by the PLO.
ISRAELI VERSION CONFIRMED BY EYE-WITNESS
The Israeli version of yesterday’s events was confirmed by Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer David Zucchino who claimed in a dispatch from Beirut today that he had witnessed the incident from about 400 yards. According to Zucchino, the Israeli tanks were circling within their zone and not approaching the marine outpost. Capt. Johnson approached the tank column and conferred briefly with an Israeli officer after which the tanks left the area Zucchino reported.
(“Israeli soldiers patrolling near the site of the incident paid little attention to it and the marine commander here, Col. Thomas Stokes, did not mention it at a news conference more than six hours later,” Zucchino wrote.)
U.S. VIEWS INCIDENT WITH ‘GRAVITY’
But in Washington last night, acting Secretary of State Kenneth Dam summoned the Israeli Charge d’Affaires, Benjamin Netanyahu “to discuss this incident and the gravity with which we view it,” State Department deputy spokesman Alan Romberg told the media.
Romberg said, “The recurrence of challenges to the marines by Israeli Defense Forces is unacceptable. We view such incidents very seriously because they endanger the safety of the troops involved and hamper the peace keeping efforts of the multinational force” which the marines constitute along with French and Italian units.
According to Romberg, “Our information is that U.S. marines halted three Israeli tanks which had attempted to cross into territory within the operational responsibilities” of the multinational force.
The Israel Embassy denied, in a statement issued last night that “there was any attempt to cross the American lines or to challenge the marines… there was no such attempt.”
According to the Embassy statement, “After completion of the patrol, a U.S. marine officer approached the Israeli unit and claimed that it should not be in this area. The Israeli commander explained that he was operating in territory previously agreed upon and left.”
INCIDENT TERMED A ‘JOHN WAYNE OPERETTA’
The Israeli officer in charge of the sector described yesterday’s incident as “absurd.” Israeli officials were reported to have spoken sarcastically of Johnson’s action. They were quoted as describing it privately as a “John Wayne operetta or a scene from a “wild west film,” They expressed surprise at the official publicity given to what was “only a storm in a teacup.”
But Weinberger, at his appearance on Capitol Hill, called the incident “basically damaging to the President’s efforts to secure peace in the whole area. ” He said Capt. Johnson acted with “total correctness and extreme courage,” adding, “I’ve asked that he be commended.”
VERSION BY COL. STOKES
Stokes gave his version in a press interview several hours after the press conference at which he had reportedly failed to mention the incident. He said Johnson “went down on the road by himself to try to tell these folks (the Israelis) to turn around and go home. He stood in the road as the tanks came up and the Israeli (lead) tank came within one foot of him, at pretty high speed and then slammed on the brakes.”
He said Johnson demanded to speak to the Israeli commander who emerged from his tank after a few minutes and said he had orders to go to the railroad tracks. Stokes said Johnson told the Israelis that he was approaching a Lebanese army checkpoint and that the Lebanese had orders not to let the Israelis through.
According to Stokes’ version, the Israeli officer said “I’m coming through and Capt. Johnson said at that point ‘No you’re not. The only way you’re going to get there is to come through me’.”