A federal jury found today that Time Inc. did not act with "actual malice" in describing former Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon's role in the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at two refugee camps in Beirut.

While rendering the bittersweet verdict in favor of Time, jury foreman Richard Zug, 45, a computer programmer, read on behalf of the six-member panel a statement reprimanding "certain Time employes, particularly correspondent David Halevy," for acting "negligently and carelessly in reporting and verifying the information" in one paragraph of the February 1983 Time cover story at issue in the case.

During 11 days of deliberations, the jury twice returned to the courtroom to announce preliminary findings that the paragraph was defamatory and false. But to win his $50 million libel lawsuit, Sharon needed to prevail on the "actual malice" issue, a concept in U.S. libel law that gives the press broad protection in writing about public figures, and show how he had been harmed by the article.

But Sharon claimed victory and vindication anyway because of the jurors' earlier findings and the statement they issued today.

"I feel I have achieved what it was that brought us to this country," Sharon told reporters outside the courthouse after the verdict was announced.

He thanked the American public for allowing him access to the New York courts and added, tantalizingly, "I am going home now. I have several things to do there."

There is broad speculation, which Sharon has not denied, that he will try to use the jury's decisions as the basis for a political comeback. He has long aspired to become prime minister of Israel.

Time, which in a news release also declared victory in the case, said it "feels strongly that the case should never have reached an American courtroom."

"It was brought by a foreign politician attempting to recoup his political fortunes. He could not sue Israel's Kahan Commission, which had found him guilty of indirect responsibility for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila and recommended his ouster as defense minister. So he sued Time. This caused a long, expensive and inappropriate legal action."

Each side in the lengthy trial, which began Nov. 13, estimated that its legal and other expenses would exceed $1 million.

While the case may serve to boost Sharon's political fortunes, it also reopened one of Israel's darkest chapters and cast new uncertainty on whether the Israeli government has made public the full story of the role Sharon and other top Israeli military officials played in the September 1982 massacres by Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Although the Israeli government allowed a Time representative to inspect certain secret documents collected by the Kahan Commission (named for its chairman, retired Israeli chief justice Yitzhak Kahan), it prevented top Israeli military officials from testifying here and threatened to prosecute lower-ranking ones if they cooperated with Time's attorneys.

"The result was a half-trial," according to Time's statement. "Mr. Sharon presented his case -- Time could not present a significant portion of its case. Time believes that on these grounds alone it would have won on appeal."

The trial exposed in greater detail than perhaps ever before the internal workings of Time, one of the Western world's most influential journals, with a worldwide circulation of more than 6 million.

Although top editors of the magazine boasted in testimony of an elaborate and expensive fact-checking system, Sharon's attorneys produced evidence showing an organization loath to admit error and only loosely in control of correspondent Halevy, whose driving desire to get exclusives had resulted both in scoops for the magazine and, on at least a few occasions, stories the magazine found it could not support.

Halevy conceded on the witness stand in November that he had no source for a key detail in the paragraph at issue in the Sharon case but had "inferred" the information. Early this month, after the magazine's representative had inspected the secret documents in Israel, Time published a partial retraction.

The paragraph in question said that during a condolence call on the Gemayel family on Sept. 15, 1982, the day after Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, Sharon discussed the need for "revenge," and that this information was contained in a secret appendix to the Kahan Commission's report. The massacres began Sept. 16.

Time Inc. editor-in-chief Henry A. Grunwald said today he still believes the paragraph to be substantially true, despite one acknowledged error (the information was not in the secret appendix), "because of Halevy's track record and because of the nature and standing of his sources."

Grunwald said he did not know the identity of Halevy's confidential sources for the paragraph.

Halevy, an Israeli citizen, testified that he relied on confidential information from two Israeli generals, a "high-ranking government official" and someone he described only as an "intelligence person."

In pretrial depositions and on the witness stand, Halevy gave confused accounts of how he gathered and reported the information. Invoking New York State's reporter shield law, he declined to name his sources and used one code to identify them in deposition testimony and another code on the witness stand.

Harry Kelly, Time's Jerusalem bureau chief when the article was printed, testified that Halevy had told him he had seen notes of the conversation Sharon had with the Phalangist leaders during his condolence visit, but on the witness stand Halevy suggested vaguely that he had not seen the notes but that one of his sources had read them to him.

Halevy also was vague on what he had been told about the conversation and left unclear whether he got the information during a telephone call or in a meeting with his sources. He also said he could not remember where he was when he learned the information, because he had been moving frequently.

Such matters preoccupied the jury, which called for reams of testimony during the seven days of deliberation on the issue of "actual malice."

Broadly speaking, to find "actual malice" a jury must be convinced that a defendant who published or broadcast false and defamatory information either knew that it was untrue or entertained doubts about its accuracy. Beyond that, the concept is murky and has been a major stumbling block for other juries in libel suits brought by public figures.

In this case, U.S District Court Judge Abraham D. Sofaer experimented with court procedures to help the jury through the legal thicket. Sofaer had his long instructions typed and sent to the jury room for reference, a highly uncommon if not unprecedented action in such a case. In addition, at the request of Time's lawyers he directed the jurors to answer six pages of questions detailing how they reached their verdict.

Suspense was added to the deliberations as Sofaer had the jury report its findings step by step.

This evening, Sofaer released the scanty biographical information the jurors provided during their selection process, showing them to be a fairly random selection of working-class New Yorkers.

Ingrid Tineo, 24, the youngest, is a secretary in the personnel department of Young & Rubicam, a Manhattan advertising agency. Spencer James, at 64 the oldest, is a retired watch supervisor at a Con Edison power plant.

Others included a 27-year-old AT&T marketing specialist, a currently unemployed planning administrator and an administrative secretary at the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm.

It was not known whether any of the jurors are Jewish.

Announcement of the verdict was delayed until around noon while the jury foreman, Zug, communicated to the judge the panel's desire to register its criticism of Time before announcing judgment in favor of the magazine.

Later, Grunwald and Time managing editor Ray Cave said in separate interviews that they disagreed with the jury's reprimand and indicated that they objected to the panel's earlier findings that the paragraph was false and defamatory.

"There's no doubt in my mind that those two pieces of the verdict will raise doubt in the public mind about how careful our processes are," Cave said. "I think that will be a very short-term consideration of our readers. In the long term, this adversity will be negligible."

Both men said they saw no reason for changing any aspect of Time's operations.

Halevy has been reassigned to the magazine's Washington bureau. Kelly, the former Jerusalem bureau chief, is now in Central America for the magazine.

Time lead attorney Thomas D. Barr, who gently chided reporters for making Sharon "the darling of the press," warned that the former general's suit and a similar libel case here involving retired general William C. Westmoreland and CBS were ominous signs. "I think public officials are going to sue all the media more and more," Barr said.

Sharon's lead counsel, Milton S. Gould, said U.S. libel law is too stringent. "The reason we didn't get any money is we're dealing with a peculiar law involving 'actual malice,' which makes it practically impossible for a public official to win a libel verdict."

Gould said Sharon will not appeal.