Beirut trial puts Israel in the dock: Former Christian militia chief Samir Geagea faces allegations that he plotted acts of terrorism with Israeli agents' support, writes Robert Fisk from Beirut

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The Independent Online
Israel and Lebanon may be officially talking peace but, if Beirut court documents are to be believed, Israeli military intelligence officers have been secretly training groups of Lebanese Christian militiamen to carry out 'operations' against the Beirut government - including the bombing of the Maronite Church at Zouk last February in which 11 worshippers were killed.

Far-fetched though this may sound, the papers - contained in an indictment against Samir Geagea, the former 'Lebanese Forces' militia leader - detail meetings between Israeli agents and Lebanese militia officers in Nazareth and in the south Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil as well as assignations between right-wing Lebanese militiamen in the Moshe Hotel in Tel Aviv.

At one meeting in an Israeli ministry of interior office at Nazareth in 1993, five Israeli officers - two of them named in the documents as 'Arian' and 'Moshe' - are said to have met three right- wing Lebanese loyal to Mr Geagea: Rushdi Raad, Jean Chahine and Gergess el-Khoury, two of whom have now been charged with the church bombing.

Mr Geagea's indictment also recounts frequent trips by Lebanese militia officials to Israel, either by sea or through the Israeli occupation zone where an Israeli officer calling himself 'Colonel Saleh Fallah' met the Lebanese at an intelligence post in the town of Bint Jbeil called 'Centre 17'.

In October 1993, Mr Khoury is said to have met another Israeli officer at Centre 17, identified as an Iraqi-born Israeli called Grafili, who put him in touch with several of those who were later to be accused of the Zouk bombing. On 22 December last year, Mr Khoury met Israeli intelligence officers again in Nazareth where, according to court records, he saw an old Lebanese friend called Antonios Elias in the company of 11 Lebanese militiamen whom he recognised. Mr Elias told Mr Khoury that the men 'were training for a big operation with Israeli co-ordination - but not till next April or May.' Although court records do not say so, Israeli troops kidnapped the Hizbollah official Mustapha Dirani from his Bekaa Valley home in May - with the apparent help of Lebanese sympathetic to Israel.

Israel has maintained strong links with Maronite Christian forces in Lebanon for more than 20 years. Christian Phalangists whom Israel trained and armed committed the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in 1982; at the time, Israel blamed a Phalangist officer called Elie Hobeika for the killings. Mr Hobeika is now a minister in the pro-Syrian Lebanese government and was the target of an assassination attempt for which Mr Geagea is now being blamed.

Several of the accused are said to have had close ties to Israel for many years. Mr Khoury's parents, for example, are reported to be living in the Galilee village of Maalaya. The Israelis are alleged to have furnished false passports for Christian militiamen; according to the charges against Mr Geagea, Mr Khoury testified that he saw two of these - one Polish, the other Australian - when he met Raad in Room 704 in the Moshe Tower hotel in Tel Aviv on 21 March, 1994, three weeks after the Zouk bombing.

Five of the men the Lebanese authorities want to question about that explosion now live abroad. But among the Christians now awaiting trial in Beirut are former right-wing militiamen charged with attacking Lebanese army forces and leaving bombs outside schools and churches. One of the bombs, which was not intended to explode, had the words 'God is Great' written on the side - in an apparent attempt to convince the authorities that Muslims were to blame. Mr Geagea is accused of plotting to stage a coup d'etat against the Syrian-backed government by sending his militiamen into Christian areas after the Zouk bombing - on the grounds that the government could no longer protect the Christians of Lebanon.

Elsewhere in the Beirut courts, a Palestinian called Youssef Chaaban, charged with two others for the murder of a Jordanian diplomat, has been making some 'confessions' of his own, the most sensational of which appeared to be a claim that he bombed the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie in 1988. A Foreign Office statement that Mr Chaaban's testimony was 'gibberish' appears to be presumptuous, not least because no British embassy official was in court to hear the rest of Mr Chaaban's testimony.

Mr Chaaban, a member of Abu Nidal's radical Palestinian group who is pleading not guilty, also added mysteriously: 'There is a (peace) process under way in the region and they (sic) want to eliminate us because we are against it - furthermore, some people want to be crossed off the international terrorist list.'

In Sidon, meanwhile, the trial continues of another Palestinian, Mohamed Chreidi, who is blamed by the Germans for bombing La Belle discotheque in West Berlin in 1986 - killing two Americans and a Turkish woman, and provoking America's bombing of Libya that year. The Germans, however, are showing as little interest in the Chreidi trial as the British suggest they are in Mr Chaaban's testimony.

Mr Geagea's trial is due to start in a matter of weeks. Mr Chaaban appears in court again next Monday. Judgment on Mr Chreidi is expected the next day. The wheels of justice may grind slowly, but in post-war Lebanon few can deny they are throwing up some remarkable stories.

(Photographs omitted)