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The murder of four Arab civilians by an Isaraeli Army officer during last year's invasion of southern Lebanon -- kept under wraps for 15 months by military censorship -- has surfaces publicly in a parlimentary furor over the communication of most of the officer's prison sentence by the Army chief of staff, Gen. Rafael Eitan.
The issue came to a head today in the Knesset, Israeli's parliament, when an opposition motion of no confidence against the Likud coalition government was easily defeated, 54 to 4, with 25 abstensions.
But the debate provided a forum for opposition members to launch a scathing attack on Eitan for employing a double standard of justice and undermining the authority of the military judges who had sentenced the infantry officer.
Knesset member Meir Pail, of the Shelli [peace and equality] party, charged in the debate that the officer -- whose name is deleted from dispatches by Israeli censors -- was the boyfriend of the daughter of a top-ranking Army Officer, whom Pail later identified as Gen. Danny Matt, coordinator of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Without mentioning Matt by name in his Knesset speech, Pail said he had information that "a general" intervened with Eitan on behalf of the infantry officer. Later, in the Knesset lobby, Pail told reporters the general was Matt.
Matt denied tonight that he was intervened on the officer's behalf, telling the Voice of Israel radio that the senior military advocate was responsible for transmitting the recommendation of reduction of sentence to the chief of staff, and that it was then that officer's responsibility to evaluate it.
Details of the murders, which occurred in the early stages of Israeli Army's trust to the Litani River in March 1978, have been placed under censorship.
But it has been disclosed that the officer was convicted and originally sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment by a military court. The term was reduced to eight years by a five-judge military court of appeals, which included a Supreme Court Justice.
Eitan, Israel's top military officer, last month reduced the sentence to two years, including the 15 months already served. According to Knesset member Shulamit Aloni, of the Citizens' Rights Movement, Eitan then ordered the office of the military censor, which screens in advance of publication Israeli and foreign newspaper reports, to apply censorship to dispatches about the officer's conviction and the commutation of sentence.
A military source tonight said that one reason for the censorship was a fear of possible retaliation by Palestinians against Israelis "on the other side."
An account of the murders was also censored from a lengthy state controller's report issued on May 9, which was sharply critical of the Army's behaviour in the Litani invasion and which cited 182 cases of officers and enlisted men being arrested on charges of plundering.
The Operation Litani invasion followed the massacre of 34 civilians in an attack on a tourist bus along the Tel Aviv coastal road.
Aloni charged that the purpose of the censorship was to cover the murders and the commutation of sentence.
Eitan previously had come under criticism in the case of a civil guardsman, Yisrael Lederman, whose 20-year sentence for the April 1978 murder of an Arab in East Jerusalem was first cut on appeal to 10 years and then reduced by Eitan to three years. Lederman was convicted of shooting the Arab civilian the day after terroists killed a fellow guardsman at the same spot.
According to Knesset member Yoss Sarid, Lederman had received extensive home furlongs and is due to be releasee soon.
Today's Knesset debate touched me off sharp exchanges between leftist members and members of prime minister Menachem Begin's Likud coalition, with Pail charging that Eitan had undermined the "principle of purity" of the armed forces.
The officer's sentence and should have stood, Pail said, so that "everyone in the Israeli defense forces would know that this kind of behaviour, murdering people off the enemy but not soldiers. . . . is from the Israeli moral point of view a horrible thing."
Likud Knesset member Eitan Livni one of the parliament's leading hawks, said the infantry officer was "not a war criminal," and accused the opposition of attacking the chief of staff because of his views on security of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Livni also accused Aloni of doing the government a disservice by circumventing censorship by using the Knesset to disclose details of the case.
Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, in a statement to the Knesset, called the murders a "rare aberration" and said he would do everything possible to prevent such occurrences by members of the armed forces.
A Knesset oversight committee has requested that the Defense Ministry release the censored section of the state comptroller's report dealing wih the murders.
Three members of the Knesset have written a letter to Begin asking him to intervene by asking Eitan for an explanation. The Knesset members -- Abba Eban of Labor, David Glass of the National Religious Party and Amnon Rubenstein of the Shai Party -- reportedly wrote that the reduction of the sentence "will create among the youth the impression that the blood of Arabs may be taken."