Israeli troops and tanks poured into Southern Lebanon near a U.N. peacekeeping headquarters in pursuit of Palestinian guerrillas early today and withdrew 12 hours later, apparently empty-handed.
The battalion-size force estimate at 400 to 500 troops with tanks and other armored vehicle moved four miles into Lebanon in their search for the guerrillas. The incursion followed an attempted Palestinian attack on an Islraeli border village in which one guerrilla was wounded and captured but three others escaped, an Israeli Army spokesman said.
Although Israeli warplanes attacked alleged Palestinian strongholds in Lebanon three days this week, today's operation was the first involving Israeli ground forces since January, and the biggest since March 1978, when several thousand troops invaded and occupied much of southern Lebanon.
Israeli Air Force jets attacked inside Lebanon in each of the first three days of this week in an obvious shift of tactics toward constant harassment of Palest commandos in hopes of disrupting their training activities.
The air attacks, including one 40 miles north of Beirut, prompted a rebuke by the United States. Gen. Emmanuel Erskine of Ghana, commander of the U.N. force in Lebanon, criticized today's incursion, saying that if there has been a serious incident Israel would be "solely responsible."
[After today's Israeli raid, the State Department criticized both Israel and the Palestinian guerrillas for a "cycle of violence" and said the the actions threaten the search for peace in the region.]
An Israeli Army spokeman described today's operation as a "search mission" for the escaping guerrillas and said that no fighting took place in Lebanon. He said there were no reports of guerrillas being captured during the operation.
Israeli Radio said an Israeli Army patrol had confronted the commando squad about dawn near Manara, a kibbutz on the Israeli side of the border. The Palestinians fired an antitank missile and light weapons at a building, but caused no casualties, the radio said.
The Israeli force that entered Lebanon included armored personnel carriers, jeeps and helicopters. It drove four miles across the border to the village of Chaqra, near Tibnin, where the Irish contingent of the U.N. peace-keeping iforce is headquartered.
The area is in the vicinity of narrow enclave controlled by Lebanese Christian militia commander Maj. Saad Haddad, whose army has long been supported by Israel.
Israeli officials, in keeping with practice, refused to say how many troops crossed into Lebanon, but an informed source said it was a "battalion-sized" force, meaning between 400 and 500 men.
An army official said the fleeing Palestinians' "footsteps led right to Chaqra," a tiny village that has not been known as a terrorist base. The army reportedly positioned itself on a hill overlooking the village, and sent a force to the village to conduct a house-to-house search. Officials said it could be assumed that interrogation of the captured guerrilla prompted the army to go to Chaqra.
Meanwhile, a controversy over Israel's release of 76 Palestinian terrorists on March 14 in exchange for one Israeli reserve solider held captive in Damascus came to a head today as the parliament voted down a motion of no confident in the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Begin easily overrode the motion by a sizable majority, but not until he and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman had been subjected to bitter criticism by most of the opposition factions for what they saw as establishing a precedent that will haunt Israel for years. There was no count of the hand vote.
Opposition Labor Party member Yigael Allon, a former foreign minister, said the government had "surrendered to terrorism" after painfully setting a pattern of refusing to barter for hostages in such traumatic terrorist episodes as Entebbe Airport in Uganda, and the masacre of school-children in Maalot in 1974.
The controversy centers around Avraham Amram, a reserve private who was captured by Palestinian guerrillas during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in March, 1978, while on an unauthorized foray beyond Israeli lines to pick fruit.
He was held in a Damascus prison until an exchange of prisoners was arranged by the International Red Cross. The Palestinian prisoners were flown to Libya.
While the swap provoked some criticism at the time, the controversy grew this week when the Hebrew newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, published the names and offenses of the prisoners Israel released.
Thirty of the released prisoners were serving life sentences, and many of those had been convicted of terrorist acts that claimed the lives of scores of Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Weizman tried to explain over the din of hecking that the swap was not a precedent because Israel had made other trades, including 20 prisoners for an El Al airliner that was hijacked to Algeria in 1968.
Weizman said the army had considered a military operation to free Amram, but when that was held impractical, the government turned to a trade for humanitarian reasons.
Moshe Shamir, of the right-wing Ilaam faction of Likud, interjected, "It was a gesture to [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat. What are you talking about getting the prisoners back?" CAPTION: Map, no caption