The casualty toll from the explosion that ripped through the Israeli Army's south Lebanese headquarters in Tyre today climbed to 47 Israeli soldiers, border guards and security men killed and 27 still missing. In addition, 15 Palestinians were confirmed dead and 13 unaccounted for.
The high Israeli casualties suffered in yesterday's explosion have sparked angry public questioning of the adequacy of protection provided for Israeli troops in Lebanon and brought renewed criticism of the wisdom of Israel's overall strategy in invading its northern neighbor.
The charges have added to the problems confronting Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who already is under heavy criticism as a result of the massacres in September conducted by Lebanese Christian forces in two Palestinian refugee camps near Beirut.
Efforts to remove bodies and rescue survivors from the flattened eight-story building continued through the day with the aid of three Israeli Army cranes. So far, 28 persons have been dragged from the debris and taken to hospitals. An Army officer on the scene was quoted as saying the rescue effort could take two more days.
The cause of the explosion, initially blamed by the military command on a car bomb, remained unknown. Sharon yesterday announced that a special commission had been appointed to investigate the incident and would report its findings to Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan within a week.
The military command did not retract its initial statement about a car bomb, but press reports said a consensus was growing that the explosion took place inside the building and not in a booby-trapped car on the outside. Speculation on the cause ranged from the possibility that high explosives were smuggled inside the building to the chance that a gas leak accidently ignited Israeli explosives stored in the building.
The confusion and uncertainty following the blast were reflected in an unusually mild statement issued by the Israeli Cabinet today following a special meeting to hear reports on the incident.
The cabinet communique did not attempt to place blame for what it called the "tragedy" in Tyre and said the cause of the explosion "will be clarified only on the inquiry's conclusion." The tone of the statement suggested that there would be no immediate Israeli retaliation.
Eitan named reserve Army Maj. Gen. Meir Zorea to head the investigation. With creation of the special panel, there are now two bodies investigating aspects of the Israeli military occupation of Lebanon. The other is the judicial board of inquiry investigating the massacres.
Sharon visited Tyre early this morning and declared that criticism of Israel's continued presence in Lebanon should not be voiced while efforts were still under way to free Israeli soldiers trapped in the rubble of the collapsed building.
According to the Voice of Israel Radio, however, Tourism Minister Avraham Sharir complained during today's Cabinet meeting that the Army was negligent in protecting its soldiers in Lebanon. Sharir cited an earlier incident in which six soldiers were killed in an ambush as another example of lax security by the military.
The independent newspaper Haaretz also voiced criticism in an editorial that said the incident proved the government's attempt to provide "peace for Galilee" by the invasion of Lebanon had failed.
"It was foolish from the outset to assume that after the removal of the terrorist headquarters from Beirut the PLO Palestine Liberation Organization would voluntarily disappear from the military and political scene and sink into oblivion," the newspaper said. "Now, 5 1/2 months after the beginning of the 'peace for Galilee' campaign, the war has not yet ended. Israel has both of its feet sunk in the mire, and a full complex of imaginary accomplishments has collapsed like a house of cards."
Another government critic noted that the projected death toll from the Tyre incident would far exceed the number killed in the worst of the PLO attacks on northern Galilee cities and towns.
Before the Tyre explosion, Israel had lost about 370 soldiers killed since it invaded Lebanon on June 6.
Because of such factors, the criticism of Israel's continued presence in Lebanon is expected to increase domestically and to add to the pressure on the government -- and Sharon personally -- to show signs of progress toward an agreement on the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country.