President Reagan decided yesterday to halt a new shipment of cluster-type artillery shells to Israel while reviewing whether Israeli use of similar American-supplied cluster bombs in the invasion of Lebanon violated U.S. arms export laws and other special agreements with Israel.
Deputy White House press secretary Larry Speakes said "there will be no shipment of artillery projectiles or other cluster-bomb unit-related materials" until the interagency review under way is completed.
So-called cluster-bomb units can be either bombs dropped from airplanes or shells fired from artillery that break apart over a target and spread scores of tiny shrapnel-producing "bomblets" over a wide area. They are extremely lethal against military forces but can also cause a high toll among civilians if used in areas where military units are mingled with the population.
The United States has supplied Israel with cluster bombs under agreements in 1976 and 1978 that placed clear restrictions on their use. Although the agreements remain classified, American officials have said that in general they limit use to locations away from civilians and to situations in which Israel would face major wars, such as those in 1967 and 1973 against regular armies.
After repeated requests from the Reagan administration for information on the use of these weapons against Palestinians in Lebanon, the Israeli government sent a formal reply Friday that reportedly claims Israel did not violate any agreements because its forces used these weapons only against military targets. But the letter reportedly also says there were, unfortunately, Palestinian military concentrations in populated areas.
Some administration officials, especially in the Pentagon, feel strongly that there were violations by Israel. One senior defense official, who asked not to be identified, said yesterday "it is crystal clear what the Israelis undertook to do" in the original agreements covering use of the weapons "and it is equally clear they violated both the spirit and letter of the agreements."
The United States has not shipped cluster bombs to Israel since the mid-1970s, officials said, but has continued to ship 155mm cluster-type artillery shells. The Israelis have the capability of making their own cluster munitions, but officials say there is no confirmation that they have done so.
The immediate decision faced by the administration was whether to ship another 4,000 such shells, which were scheduled for transfer of title to Israel yesterday. That transfer has now been held up.
The White House announcement, however, was mild in tone, reflecting a reported administration desire not to get into a public debate with the Israeli government while its cooperation is needed to achieve a settlement of the conflict in Lebanon.
Speakes said the president is reviewing the reply from Israel, along with "associated factors," and that Reagan will consider the recommendation of his advisers in making a final determination.
Last week, the State Department sent Congress a letter indicating that Israeli use of a wide range of other American weapons in Lebanon may also have involved substantial violation of U.S. arms export laws; this, too, is under review.
As a result, two reviews are under way: one about the cluster munitions and, as Speakes put it, "the overall review of the entire question of the use of U.S. supplied arms."
While the overall review continues, he said, "other materials will continue to be shipped" to Israel. This means there has been no cut-off of arms other than cluster munitions. Officials said there are no major weapons scheduled for delivery soon and current deliveries involve such things as spare parts.
White House officials also sought to play down the significance of the July 19 transfer date for the artillery shells, which had been made known by the Pentagon. Such shipments rarely had specific dates on them, they said, so it was not really an official delay at this point. The White house acknowledged, however, that the shells were ready for shipment.
The officials said Reagan's action does not indicate he is dissatisfied with the Israeli letter of explanation.
Speakes declined to say when the review would be completed and stressed that no determination has been made that U.S. laws were violated.
The decision coincided, however, with the arrival here of foreign ministers of Syria and Saudi Arabia for meetings with Reagan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
Speakes, under questioning, said that the United States "does not look with favor" and "is not satisfied with" the flow of food being allowed into West Beirut by Israeli forces surrounding the city.
Speakes also said Reagan has not yet made a decision to send formal notification to Congress of the proposed sale of 75 more F16 fighter-bombers to Israel. The preliminary decision was announced in May, but the administration has held off notifying Congress.