JERUSALEM (Nov. 6)
The Cabinet began consideration today of further security measures in south Lebanon in the aftermath of Friday’s suicide truck bomb attack on Israeli military headquarters in Tyre. Proposals to seal off south Lebanon from the rest of the country by closing the Awali River bridge were deferred to a later session for decision, at the request of Premier Yitzhak Shamir.
According to Israeli army figures, 28 Israeli soldiers and border policemen and 32 Lebanese, mostly detainees awaiting interrogation but some of them employes at the Israeli installation were killed. Of the 28 Israeli, 13 were Druze. Twenty-nine Israelis and 12 Lebanese were injured. Among the Lebanese were relatives of the detainees who had been waiting outside of one of the buildings hit. Five persons were extricated from the rubble.
ACTION BY BORDER POLICEMAN SAVED LIVES
The attack was almost a replica of the suicide truck bombings that hit U.S. and French military headquarters in Beirut on October 23, killing 230 American and 53 French servicemen and wounding scores more.
Israeli military sources said the death toll at Tyre would have been much higher had not a border policeman guarding the compound fired at the speeding pick-up truck, killing the driver and causing the explosives to detonate outside rather than inside the building. The amount of explosives contained in the truck is still undetermined.
A group calling itself the “Islamic Jihad” (Holy War) claimed responsibility for the attack in Tyre. It is the same group that took credit for the attacks on the multinational force in Beirut last month and on the U.S. Embassy there last April.
Israeli Arab affairs experts identified the group as extremist Shiite Moslems, allied to Iranian Shiites. They have been fighting alongside the Syrians and elements of the Palestine Liberation Organization against the Lebanese army.
SWIFT RETALIATION FOLLOWS
Israel launched swift retaliation for the attack which occurred at 6 a.m. local time Friday. Waves of Israeli fighter-bombers blasted Syrian and terrorist targets at Behamdoun on the Beirut-Damascus main highway and Mansouriya, to the south. These were described as terrorist bases established after Israeli forces evacuated the region two months ago to more secure lines south of the Awali River.
Reports from Beirut Friday said tanks and three Syrian artillery batteries were destroyed in the bombing and strafing attacks. An Israeli military spokesman said all planes returned safely to their bases.
Shamir warned today that the terrorists erred gravely if they thought the attack would force Israel’s total withdrawal from Lebanon. “We shall leave Lebanon only once we are convinced that our leaving will not unleash waves of terror,” he said. “We are strong and we shall not leave Lebanon before we reach our goals which are sovereignty for the Lebanese and security for Israel.”
(A similar statement was made in Geneva yesterday be David Kimche, Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. He told reporters that if the Syrians think Israel was too preoccupied with its internal affairs and unwilling to fight, they were badly “misreading” the mood in Jerusalem.)
MESSAGE FROM PRESIDENT REAGAN
Shamir informed the Cabinet that he had received a message from President Reagan sent Friday expressing the support of the American people for Israel at this grim hour. Reagan said he hoped that America’s “deep sense of sympathy” with Israel in the Tyre bombing would “ease the loss that the people of Israel feel.”
The President’s message stated: “Today I participated in a memorial service for the casualties suffered by American forces in Beirut. Our sense of loss was made even greater by the knowledge that your forces have suffered today casualties in the same kind of terrorist attack.” News of the Tyre bombing reached the President at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, where he was attending services for the marine dead. (See separate story for other Administration reactions.)
U.S. Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger who was in Jerusalem Friday after winding up two days of talks with Israeli officials, described the attack as “murderous terrorism of the worst kind” and said every effort should be made to stamp out such acts.
The Cabinet was briefed on the Tyre attack by Chief of Staff Gen. Moshe Levy, Air Force Commander Gen. Amos Lapidot, and chief of military intelligence. Gen. Ehud Barak. The meeting opened with the ministers rising for a minute of silence for the dead in Tyre. Shamir offered his condolences to the bereaved families and wished the wounded a speedy recovery.
Discussion of Finance Minister Yigal Cohen-Orgad’s austerity program to resolve Israel’s severe economic crisis, originally the top agenda Item at today’s Cabinet meeting, was postponed until tomorrow when the Cabinet will convene again in special session. (See separate story on Cohen-Orgad’s program, P.4.)
DIVIDED OVER SEALING OF BRIDGES
The ministers were divided over the wisdom of sealing off the Awali River bridges to improve the security of Israel-occupied south Lebanon. Some senior ministers objected to the idea for fear of negative political and security implications.
Shamir, Defense Minister Moshe Arens and Deputy Premier David Levy were said to have argued that a closure would not guarantee an end to sabotage. Interior Minister Yosef Burg and Science Minister Yuval Neeman urged total segregation of south Lebanon from the north.
Although Shamir postponed a decision, the military is applying stricter controls over the Awali bridges. Traffic has been sharply curtailed but the crossings remain open for the time being.
Israel is also expected to launch a campaign among the Shiites in south Lebanon to warn them against assisting terrorists while reiterating Israel’s interest in maintaining a good relationship with that community.
The suicide attack caused extensive damage to the military headquarters compound. One building, housing general security services, was completely demolished. Another, housing border policemen, was partially destroyed as was a third where Arab detainees were being held.
One of the buildings served as a storage for explosives which continued to detonate after the initial blast, complicating rescue operations. The dead and wounded were pulled from the rubble within 12 hours by a new technique, developed after a gas leak caused an explosion which destroyed an Israel army headquarters building in Tyre a year ago, with heavy loss of life.
SPECIAL EQUIPMENT IN RESCUE WORK
Special equipment was flown in from Tel Aviv to help in the rescue work. This included specially designed pneumatic lifts capable of raising concrete slabs of up to 20 tons, inflatable rubber pillows to support the slabs while the wounded were extricated, and long tubes to pump oxygen into the rubble.
Lt. Col. Aharon Gonem, the army spokesman for the Sidon region, said the same equipment was offered to the American forces in Beirut after the bombing of the marine headquarters on October 23. The Israeli offer of technical and medical aid was rejected by the U.S.
HEROISM OF BORDER POLICEMAN
Eye witnesses to Friday’s attack, which occurred shortly after dawn, said an unidentified pick-up truck was seen speeding toward the headquarters compound, zig-zagging between concrete blocks which had been erected as a security measure.
A border policeman, identified as Nakad Sarbach, opened fire on the vehicle as it swerved along the approach road. He said later he believed he shot and killed the driver before the vehicle blew up just short of the headquarters buildings. Sarbach himself was hurled into the air by the blast but was alert enough to recapture several Arab prisoners who had seized the opportunity to try to escape. Doctors said Sarbach, who was treated for injuries, suffered nothing worse than punctured eardrums.
The dead and wounded were all identified by Saturday morning. Israel army burial squads assisted in identifying the Lebanese victims whose bodies were turned over to the International Red Cross to be returned to next of kin for internment.
A board of inquiry was immediately set up by Chief of Staff Levy to study the lessons of the attack. An immediate measure taken was the replacement of the concrete blocks by phalanxes of parked vehicles around the perimeter of the military headquarters.