The Israeli Army today downplayed a confrontation yesterday between one of its tank columns and a gun-waving U.S. Marine captain, calling the square off a "nonevent," but Israeli officials continued to criticize the U.S. forces' policing of southern Beirut.
The officials suggested that the Marines were not doing an adequate job of providing security around Beirut International Airport. They also indicated that U.S. officers were hampered by orders that prevent them from dealing directly with the Israelis when misunderstandings arise.
At a special Army news conference, the Israeli officer whose three tanks were turned back by the Marine said that his patrol never left Israeli-controlled territory and never posed a threat to the Marines.
The officer, identified only as Lt. Col. Rafi, said that at one point during the confrontation Marine Capt. Charles Johnson told him that if he attempted to move forward the British-made Centurion tanks, "You will have to kill me."
"Don't worry, I will not kill you," Rafi said he replied.
In their comments, the Israelis generally tried to minimize the importance of the confrontation. The Israeli Army spokesman who conducted the news conference and translated Rafi's Hebrew comments into English called it a nonevent.
Commenting on results of a meeting in Lebanon between Israeli Army officers and U.S. Embassy officials to establish more clearly the dividing line between the forces, the Army confirmed that the zones that each force controls will be marked off by brightly colored barrels "to prevent any further misunderstanding."
Israeli officials maintain that as long ago as September, agreement was reached on the dividing line between the two forces. They said it was an abandoned railroad track that runs into Beirut from the south, with the Israelis controlling the area east of the track and the multinational force, including the Marines, the area west of the track.
But U.S. officials disputed this contention, and after a number of incidents a meeting was held on Monday among Maj. Gen. Amir Drori, the Israeli Army's northern commander; Col. Thomas M. Stokes Jr., the Marine commander in Beirut; and U.S. Middle East envoy Morris Draper. At that meeting, according to the Israelis, the railroad track was settled on as the dividing line, but it was also agreed that a Marine contingent stationed around the science building of Lebanon University, which is east of the track in the Israeli zone, would be allowed to remain there.
It was these Marines who had the confrontation with Rafi's tank column Wednesday.
Israeli officials described the patrol led by Rafi, which came within 300 yards of the Marine positions at the science building, as "routine," although they were unable to say whether tanks had ever been used in that area before. Rafi said he had not personally ever led a patrol before to the spot of the confrontation.
The Israeli colonel, said to be in his early to middle 30s, gave this version of the incident:
The Israeli tanks approached from the south, just east of the railroad track. Inching up a small hill to survey the terrain, Rafi said he saw a U.S. jeep approaching and halted his column.
The jeep stopped about 200 yards from the tanks, and Capt. Johnson approached on foot.
Rafi said Johnson told him he was not supposed to be in the area, and he replied that the dividing line was the railroad track and that the Marine forces at the science building were not to come out from behind a barrier near the building. He said he told Johnson that he did not intend to reach the science building with his tanks and asked the American to bring his superior officer to discuss the dispute.
According to Rafi, Johnson refused. He said he told the Marine captain he would then move forward, and that it was then that Johnson said, "You will have to kill me."
He said the tank column moved forward, and Johnson pulled out his weapon, a .45-caliber automatic pistol, and chased after his tank on foot. Rafi said when his tank reached its next observation post, he could see about 100 Marines deploying around the science building and that he "invited" Johnson up on his tank for discussion.
With the Marine captain standing on his tank, holding the pistol "toward the sky," Rafi said a second tank moved into its new observation post. At this point, he said, "The captain grabbed me and I gave him a little shove back and told him to get off the tank."
Rafi said he tried to make radio contact with his headquarters but failed. He said he decided at this point that he had completed his mission and returned to base with the tank column.
"The Marines have orders not to talk to Israeli soldiers," Rafi said. "These problems would be alleviated if they had orders to talk to us."