Destruction in Lebanon weighs on conscience of many Israelis

The wrath of Israel has proven awesome in Lebanon, and many Israelis surveying the destruction of Lebanese towns have been deeply disturbed at what their firepower has wrought.

''I sometimes think we're sensitive only to our pain and not the pain of others,'' remarked a young paratrooper, after viewing the ruins of Tyre.

Another soldier said: ''I look at this and say, 'May it never happen to us.' ''

Some 30 percent of the structures in Tyre have been demolished beyond repair, according to Israeli authorities. Residents say 100 to 200 people were killed; the Israeli military says no more than 100.

In Sidon, up the coast, Israeli officials say 6 percent of the buildings have been destroyed, another 10 percent suffered lesser damage. Israeli officials dismiss Red Cross claims of 1,500 dead and say that about 400 died.

Many other towns, particularly along the coast, have suffered extensive damage from bombs, artillery, or tank fire. Lebanese authorities estimate that nearly 10,000 people have been killed overall in southern Lebanon. Israeli officials say this is an overestimate and also discount initial Red Cross figures of 600,000 refugees caused by the Israeli invasion, declaring that there were some 70,000 refugees.

The revulsion among Israelis at the destruction for which they were responsible is tempered somewhat by a feeling that it was dictated by military necessity.

''It's awful, but there was no other way,'' said a reserve paratroop officer who teaches physics at a university. ''You can't fight in a built-up area without suffering unbearable casualties unless you soften it up first.''

Addressing the widespread Israeli unease on this issue, Prime Minister Menachem Begin claimed on Israeli television last week that no other army had higher moral and humanitarian standards than Israel's. He said that most senior officers at a crucial military staff meeting had expressed their opposition to air and artillery strikes at Palestinians in Lebanese towns. In the end, however , military considerations prevailed.

Reserve Maj. Gen. Aaron Yariv told a press briefing that Israel had done everything possible to limit civilian casualties by warning civilians -- via radio, loudspeakers, and leaflets -- to leave areas to be attacked and giving them time to do so.

Despite these mitigating factors, many Israelis are conscience-stricken at the destruction. A few hours after the cease-fire with the Syrians went into effect two weeks ago, a young man took up position opposite Begin's residence in Jerusalem with a sign reading: ''Thou shalt not kill.''

There has been a wide public response to various volunteer efforts to organize aid to residents of the stricken Lebanese towns. Hundreds of families have offered a temporary haven to Lebanese mothers with infants in a program launched by an Israeli women's organization. A convoy of 30 vehicles carrying medical supplies as well as ice cream for Lebanese children crossed the border into southern Lebanon last week with 60 volunteer doctors, paramedics, and others.

The Jerusalem Post said that the Israeli armed forces had tried to minimize civilian damage and had avoided indiscriminate shooting even at the risk of soldiers' lives. But, it added, ''the sheer volume of fire-power turned on such towns as Tyre, Sidon, and Damour from the air, the ground, and the sea was bound to result in punishment for the innocent as well as the guilty. For the first time in its annals, Israel came close to waging total war.''

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