The killing of a CBS television cameramen and soundman as they filmed an Israeli raid of a south Lebanese Shiite village last week has raised a storm of controversy here. Israel is a society almost obsessed with its image abroad. The ongoing insistence by an executive of CBS that an Israeli tank crew may have deliberately fired on the camera crew has brought sharp denials from officials, including the prime minister.
But the death of the two crew members also has raised larger issues about the press's ability to cover Israel's occupation and the retreat of her troops.
``Because it is Israel, the assumption is that the game will be played by somewhat civilized rules,'' said Harry Wall, director of the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. ``But Israel has decided that it is in a war against terrorism and it is going to take whatever means are necessary to stop the attacks [against its troops]. Coverage is a very secondary concern.''
In an unusual step, Prime Minister Shimon Peres expressed sorrow over the death of the two CBS workers. But the prime minister also said that the two men ``took a position in the midst of a group of armed men who were engaged in active hostility against the IDF [the Israel Defense Forces].''
The incident has even involved President Reagan, who in a Thursday press conference said he was sure the death of the two men was ``not a deliberate killing.''
Tewfik Ghazawi and Bahije Metni were killed when an Israeli tank shell hit their car in the village of Kfar Melki Thursday. The driver of their car was severely injured.
Several journalists had been covering the Israeli raid of Lebanese villages outside Israel's occupation zone that day. A French journalist who saw the CBS car hit said that the car was not near militiamen and that the Israeli tank was only 500 meters away from the CBS car when it fired.
Journalists in Beirut regularly travel to the south in an effort to cover the effects of Israel's occupation. On Thursday they were in an area not held by the Israelis. The villages in the hills above the port city of Sidon, however, have become targets for Israeli attacks across the Army's front line between the Zahrani and Litani Rivers.
CBS News President Edward M. Joyce demanded an investigation into what he termed ``this tragic and shameful occurrence.'' Mr. Joyce said in a telex message to Mr. Peres: ``This is not the first instance, as you know, of attacks by the Israeli military on innocent journalists in Lebanon, but it is the most wanton and tragic, and demands your complete attention and action.''
Peres said that there will be no special investigation.
Over the weekend, CBS canceled a planned weeklong special broadcast from Israel that was to have been shown during the Passover and Easter week.
``There is no doubt about it, that program would have been good for Israel in terms of tourism and public relations,'' Mr. Wall said. CBS ``has now overreacted. They've squandered whatever moral capital they had and they have had some,'' he said.
The Anti-Defamation League monitors daily press coverage of Israel, and has found the coverage of Israel's occupation as a whole to be slanted, according to Wall.
``After a period of relative grace, Israel once again is being singled out for activities very few other nations are being accused of,'' he said.
The Army is embroiled in a ``battle against terrorism'' with the Lebanese Shiite population of the south, that ``despite the reputation of the IDF means you've got some very, very jittery young soldiers up there who are scared to death,'' Wall said. ``Israel at this point is not interested in public relations. It's interested in protecting the lives of its soldiers and its northern settlements.''
The Army does periodically take journalists based in Israel or working in Israel on tours of the south. Those stories, however, are subject to Israeli military censorship. The Army has forbidden access to the areas it controls to reporters operating out of Beirut.