The Israeli Army denied today that it has harassed and attempted to provoke the U.S. Marine contingent in Lebanon and asserted that all of the incidents between the marines and Israeli soldiers were the fault of the Americans.
A statement issued by the government press office here and attributed to "official military sources" described as "strange" the charge by U.S. Marine Commandant Gen. Robert H. Barrow that Israeli forces had put Marine and U.S. Army officers in "life-threatening situations" that were "timed, orchestrated and executed for obtuse Israeli political purposes."
"All of the incidents which have occurred since the beginning of the year have been examined and clarified between the two sides on both the military and diplomatic levels," the Israeli statement said. "It has been proved that some of the incidents were caused by the American forces' lack of knowledge about the agreements dividing zones of control and the rest of the incidents were due to the presence of American soldiers in the area under IDF Israel Defense Forces control."
The statement urged "contact or coordination between units in the field" and said there had been "no military entanglement between the IDF and the non-American units of the multinational force" that coordinate with Israel in the field.
It said Marine officers in Beirut recognize the need to meet regularly with their Israeli counterparts but are prevented from doing so "because of political reasons."
Barrow made his complaint, and demanded "firm and strong action" to correct the situation, in a letter to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger dated March 14 and made public by the Pentagon yesterday. In the letter, Barrow said he had thought measures taken last month had defused the tense situation between the marines and Israeli soldiers but that in the face of continued "provocation" by the Israelis, he could no longer remain silent.
The exchange of charges threatened to reignite the heated atmosphere of last January and February when, in the view of U.S. officials here and in Washington, a series of incidents between the marines and Israeli soldiers contributed to a general deterioration in U.S.-Israeli relations.
The most publicized occurred Feb. 2 when Marine Capt. Charles Johnson unholstered his .45 caliber automatic pistol during a confrontation with an Israeli patrol of three tanks that came within about 200 yards of an outpost manned by marines and Lebanese Army troops. As a result of this confrontation, meetings were held to set a clear dividing line between Israeli troops and U.S. peace-keeping forces near Beirut's international airport.
A week before this incident, Maj. Gen. Amir Drori, the Israeli Army's northern commander, publicly charged that the marines in Beirut were serving as a "buffer" behind which Palestinian guerrillas were able to flee in safety after making hit-and-run attacks on Israeli soldiers.
In the angry exchanges, each side has accused the other of having political motives that have created a tense and dangerous situation for the troops.
The Israelis express amazement and anger at what they say is the continuing refusal of the United States to authorize regular contact between officers of the two forces and suggest that this is a deliberate attempt by the Reagan administration to isolate the Israeli forces in the Beirut area.
But U.S. officials charge that the Israelis have attempted to provoke incidents to discredit the entire multinational peace-keeping force. The Israelis, contending that no outside force will be effective in combating Palestinian guerrillas, strongly oppose the deployment of multinational or U.N. forces in southern Lebanon as part of a troop withdrawal agreement with Lebanon.
Today's statement by the Army was relatively mild compared to some earlier ones and made no charges about the marines serving as a "buffer" for Palestinian guerrillas. But it made clear that the Israeli Army believes the fault for any incidents in the Beirut area rests entirely with the marines.
Israeli soldiers, the statement said, "did not even once" stray from their designated area of control while "the side which does not honor the agreement and pretends that the agreement is not known to it is the Americans. It should be noted that all of the incidents were in the locations under IDF control and outside the area under Marine control."
Of specific incidents cited by Barrow, the Israeli statement said:
Johnson's life was not threatened in the Feb. 2 confrontation, but after he drew his gun on an Israeli officer the Israeli "politely asked him to get up on the tank and make his charges."
Israel has "no knowledge" of an incident on Jan. 31 in which an Israeli weapon was said to have been fired at a Marine patrol. "On that date, it turns out, a Lebanese soldier let off a burst of fire, and IDF forces refrained from opening fire because American soldiers were in the area," Israel said.
Israeli soldiers did not threaten an American officer two weeks ago at a roadblock in Beirut. It said the U.S. officer, attached to a U.N. observation team, and a cameraman from CBS were photographing the roadblock and "were politely asked to stop photographing and to return from whence they came."
The statement also expressed "surprise" that the Pentagon made Barrow's letter public the day after five U.S. marines were lightly wounded in Beirut by a grenade thrown at their patrol.