The Israeli Army Information Office in Tel Aviv put out a new sheet of statistics this week to combat the widespread impression abroad that Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon has resulted in high civilian casualties.
It began by giving rough casualty estimates from the Lebanese civil war of 1975-76--100,000 dead and 200,000 injured, with 400,000 homeless.
By contrast, it said, only 600 civilians had been killed and 900 injured in Israel's "Operation Peace for Galilee," while just 20,000 had fled their homes and 100,000 were returning from the north to "their freed villages."
The comparison in Israel's favor was striking, even if misleading and apparently doctored to support the government position. It stood as one more example of the propaganda war between Israel and its perceived adversaries in Beirut and elsewhere abroad to shape the image of the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.
For those interested in the "numbers game," as one Israeli military source called it, perhaps the most interesting figure in the latest Israeli estimates was that of 600 civilian deaths.
This raised the Israeli Army's earlier "final" figure of 460 civilian deaths in Sidon, Tyre and Nabatiyah by 140 and still did not make clear whether Palestinians were finally being included, an earlier acknowledged omission.
Apparently exhausted by the numbers game, a thoroughly disgruntled Israeli press did not pick up on the latest jump in the Army's civilian casualty estimate.
Just like the Israeli government, the local media have been highly critical of the estimates of casualties and homeless coming out of Beirut. But they have been no less critical of the official ones being issued by the Israeli Army and government.
"The official Israeli accountings," said an article in the Jerusalem Post July 13, "have been stuttered and disorganized, damaging the government's credibility."
Meanwhile, an Israeli official who briefs foreign correspondents admitted that Israel's credibility is suffering because of the conflicting figures.
For several weeks now, Israel has had under way a hasbara, or public relations campaign, aimed at recuperating from the propaganda battering it thinks the Palestine Liberation Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Western media based in Beirut inflicted on Israel's image during the early part of the war.
Moshe Yegar, assistant director general of the Foreign Ministry and head of its Information Department, called it a "media pogrom" against Israel, while the press here decried the "severe distortion" of the war by Western correspondents covering it out of Beirut.
In inteviews with The Washington Post, both Yegar and Army sources acknowledged that Israel lost the initiative in the propaganda war as a result of the military's policy of shrouding Israeli Army movements in "the fog of war."
Neither Israeli nor foreign reporters were allowed to accompany Israeli forces in the first days of the fighting, and it was not until the Army issued a 66-page booklet entitled "Operation Peace for Galilee--the Lebanese border" on June 21 that the Israeli version of events came out.
This was 15 days after the invasion had started.
"We gave up the initial paper battle to achieve military objectives," explained one military source. "Perhaps we made some mistakes initially because of the fog of war . . . . But we are trying to rectify it now."
In the process, Israeli and foreign media have become mired in conflicting and often unbelievable figures.
The Foreign Ministry, the Army and the Israeli media all have been picking apart the first estimates offered by the PLO, the Red Cross and the Lebanese, zeroing in on the figures of 10,000 dead and 600,000 homeless.
The Geneva-based, Swiss-run International Committee of the Red Cross has come in for particularly harsh criticism for disseminating the initial reports of high casualties and large numbers of refugees. It was the Red Cross delegation head, Francesco Noseda, who at a press conference June 11 in Beirut gave credence to the Lebanese government's purported figure on the number of homeless.
In fact, the Lebanese government had not actually said 600,000 were "homeless." It had simply asked the U.N. World Food Organization in Rome to provide rations for 600,000 persons for a six-month period. But the figure came to be taken as the number of displaced persons and, by extension, "homeless."
The Red Cross was clearly embarrassed by Noseda's use of the Lebanese figures and his interpretation of them as meaning war refugees. In a report June 18, it lowered its estimate to 200,000 war-affected people and noted that "this figure differs from original estimates made at the height of the fighting."
Shortly afterward, Noseda was relieved of his post and sent back to Geneva.
Sidon and its suburbs alone, with a population of 200,000 to 300,000, was for a time almost abandoned, with the exodus of people most intense after Israeli planes dropped leaflets telling residents to get out. The roads running inland from the coast, where Israeli forces were concentrated, were clogged with cars and people while others were fleeing Beirut for Syria and the north. Thus it was not hard to believe that hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing.
The Lebanese police estimate of nearly 10,000 deaths was harder for the Israelis to combat, because it was a nationwide estimate. Since the Israelis admitted having no figures for areas outside their control, including the Beirut area, there was no way they could counter the Beirut figures.
"I asked our people how many were killed and nobody could tell me," said Yegar. "We knew it the 10,000 figure was incorrect but we also knew the problem of counting. The problem was how to convince people it was a lie."
The "problem," remarked an Army source, was a sizable one.
"The reason we were late is that we didn't want to come out with a figure before we had accurate figures," he said. "This meant the gruesome job of removing the rubble and counting bodies . . . We published data only after we were able to have an accurate body count."
For reasons that remain unclear, the Army decided the best way to counter the Lebanese figures was to issue a set of its own as questionable on its face as the PLO's.
The estimate of 460 civilian deaths included only the three cities of Nabatiyah, (about 10), Sidon (about 400) and Tyre (about 50). Upon questioning, officials in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv admitted that it did not include Palestinians, while Army officers on the ground kept changing their minds about whether it did or not.
In one instance, a briefing officer in Sidon said the figure included only Lebanese. But when the same officer and a superior briefed two visiting U.S. senators a few minutes later, they told them it included both Lebanese and Palestinians.
Also left out were casualties inflicted on civilians during the fighting for control of the Beirut-to-Damascus highway, the Bekaa Valley and the Chouf mountainous region. Casualties in and around Beirut--where they undoubtedly have been by far the highest, running into the thousands--were necessarily excluded because the Israelis had no way of counting them.
In other words, the Israeli Army had come up with the lowest possible casualty figures as a reply to those coming from Beirut.
The Israeli official figure of 20,000 "homeless," which the Israelis have stuck to since the beginning, is, on the other hand, misleading and based on a narrow definition of the word.
The military source admitted it included only people who did not have a roof over their heads at the moment and excluded everyone else. "Others relocated at least temporarily are not homeless," he said.
This meant that all those crammed into schools, public buildings and refugee camps were excluded.
The Palestinian refugee camp at Ain Hilwe, outside Sidon, which housed somewhere between 25,000 and 70,000 before the invasion, has been destroyed. Thus, many thousands were clearly homeless from that camp alone.
Today, Israeli radio carried an interview with the mayor of Sidon, who said 50,000 toy 60,000 Palestinian refugees in and around the city need lodging.
Both the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides services to the camps, and the U.S. government are now working with about 100,00 persons in southern Lebanon whose homes have been destroyed.
Thus, like civilian casualty figures, the reported number of homeless is not really taken seriously either by the Israeli press or by foreign correspondents based here.