Israel said today that the conquest of southern Lebanon's two major cities left about 460 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians dead and another 450 wounded and charged that reports of civilian casualties running many times that amount were the product of hostile propaganda.
The estimates, the first made public in Jerusalem since the invasion was launched June 6, fell far below casualty counts provided by Lebanese, Palestinian and foreign officials in Beirut. The casualty reports have become a key element of the Israeli and Palestinian campaigns to gain international support.
"Israel has been the victim of a propaganda action insofar as it has been unjustly accused of having caused the death and wounding of tens of thousands of people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement. "Israel is sorry that certain foreign governments and certain press media have given a hand to the spreading of purposely inflated, intentionally inflated numbers, which are very far from reality."
Lebanese police had reported in Beirut that 9,583 persons had been killed throughout the country in the first 11 days of the Israeli air raids and incursion into Lebanon and other officials said the count was much higher. How the police arrived at that figure was unclear since the Israelis still control much of southern Lebanon. The Lebanese Red Cross, however, has estimated that as many as 2,000 civilians were killed by the fighting in Sidon.
The Israeli count, described as "temporary estimates that should not change much" included only casualties in the southern port cities of Tyre and Sidon and the nearby town of Nabatiyah. It omitted casualties from bombing, shelling and combat at Damour, just south of Beirut, and heavy bombardment of refugee camps near the capital along with targets inside the city itself.
As a result, the tally of civilian casualties could rise without contradicting today's Israeli estimates.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry also said 20,000 civilians, mostly Palestinian, have been left homeless in the area of Lebanon occupied by Israeli troops. This contrasted with an International Red Cross estimate of 300,000 for the country as a whole and a request from the Lebanese government to the United Nations for relief supplies for 600,000 persons affected by the bloodshed.
In addition, it left open the question of what happened to the residents of bombed-out Palestinian refugee camps such as Ein Hilweh in Sidon and Rachaiyah and Borj al-Shemali in Tyre. Along with the former Christian town of Damour, which had been taken over by Palestinian refugees, the camps had a population estimated at nearly 100,000 by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
Asked about the difference, a Foreign Ministry spokesman contested the U.N. figure, saying Israel estimates the total at only 60,000 and suggested that the rest of the refugees either returned to their homes or fled north of Israeli lines.
Return to the camps would be difficult. Ein Hilweh has been flattened by Israeli bombs and artillery into a pile of rubble. Rachaiyah, also heavily damaged, was closed off two days ago to any civilians--Palestinian or foreign--while Israeli soldiers were blowing up guerrilla ammunition dumps. About two dozen Palestinian families were seen camping under trees on the outskirts of the camp. Damour is largely destroyed and has been turned over to representatives of its original Christian population.
Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, say that the Army took exceptional precautions during this latest campaign in Lebanon to avoid civilian casualties--dropping leaflets to warn civilian populations to flee, for example, or giving time for civilian departures before bombardment. For that reason, they appear particularly sensitive to the reports of widespread civilian casualties from foreigners and international organizations that, they charge, are repeating propaganda from the Palestine Liberation Organization. The reports have caused growing anger here.
In an appearance on British television last night, Sharon expressed that anger, saying to his interviewer, "The way in which you try to describe our actions in Lebanon is shameful."
In the same tone, Health Minister Eliezer Shostak charged in the Israeli parliament today that the International Committee of the Red Cross, demonstrating prejudice against Israel, was guilty of "deliberate, malicious" exaggeration of civilian casualties during the invasion.
Yet the Foreign Ministry's accounts of the fighting also have been questioned. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said, for example, that no one was left homeless by the destruction of Damour because it was inhabited only by guerrillas--invariably called "terrorists" in Jerusalem. In fact, several thousand Palestinian refugees--of all ages and including guerrillas--have lived there in full view of passers-by since Lebanese Christians were driven out by PLO guerrillas and their Lebanese Moslem allies in January 1976.
At the same time, drives through the battle areas show massive destruction of civilian buildings in Palestinian refugee camps and the Lebanese cities of Tyre and Sidon.