Families flee south Lebanon in fear of Israeli reprisal: US is seen as having given nod to raids, reports Robert Fisk in Beirut

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HUNDREDS of families continued to flee southern Lebanon yesterday in fear of Israel's threatened reprisal against the Hizbollah and other pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon for the bombings in London, Buenos Aires and Panama.

Lebanese government officials privately warned that Warren Christopher's speech two days ago - in which the US Secretary of State blamed the Hizbollah for 'perhaps' all the bombings - meant that Washington had given Israel a green light for retaliation in Lebanon.

As Hizbollah leaders moved from their usual offices amid rumours that Israel might try to strike at targets in the capital, Beirut, the Lebanese foreign ministry refused to countenance extradition to Argentina of Sheikh Sobhi Tofeili, a founder of the Hizbollah who has been named in Buenos Aires as one of the men behind this month's double bombing in the city.

The Foreign Minister, Faris Bouez, said that there were 'no solid, reasonable documents that contain evidence' against Sheikh Tofeili, whose Bekaa Valley followers are now more radical than the Hizbollah leadership of Sayed Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut.

Sheikh Tofeili, who has strenuously denied any connection with the anti-Jewish atrocities, is now widely regarded as the Hizbollah cleric responsible for the kidnapping of Westerners in Lebanon in the late Eighties; for example, Terry Anderson, the longest-held hostage, was imprisoned for almost a year in a building next to his Beirut headquarters, along with two French captives and the former dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut, Thomas Sutherland.

It is equally clear, however, that Israeli revenge is exactly what Sheikh Tofeili's Iranian- backed satellite group is now seeking, having adopted Israel's 'eye-for-an-eye' policy of retaliation with grim enthusiasm. Supported by those Iranian clerics opposed to the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani, it is as anxious to extend its war against Israel as Israel and the US are to pursue a war against 'international terrorism'.

In this context, it is easy to forget Israel's role in helping to create the Hizbollah, which Sheikh Tofeili and others founded to counter the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and its own contacts with a group which it purports to regard as the source of all evil.

For there have been repeated messages sent between Hizbollah and Israeli officials through a neutral third party; and on one occasion in the mid- Eighties, the Israelis - anxious at the time to upset the power base of the Shia Amal militia in southern Lebanon - freely allowed heavily armed Hizbollah units to pass through its occupation zone south of Jezzine, along with mortars and rocket launchers, in order to travel from the lower Bekaa Valley to the Iqlim al Tofah district.

Just as Israel has in the past been prepared to assist the Hizbollah in this way, so it once encouraged the Islamic Palestinian movement Hamas in the occupied territories, when Hamas was regarded as a rival to Yasser Arafat's PLO - which then constituted Israel's 'terrorist' enemy. Now that Arafat has been turned into a statesman, Hamas has been named as the super-'terrorists' - even though several of its leaders, when they did not oppose Israel with weapons, met Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, in the Gaza Strip.

If this seems confusing to the Western nations - Britain included - which are now being urged to sign up for the new US-Israeli battle against world 'terrorism', many Arabs are reflecting on the fact that it is Israel and the US that will be deciding which 'terrorists' the world will be expected to fight. Iran and the Hizbollah are top of the list, of course, with Hamas a close second. Those guilty of the numerically worst 'terrorist' atrocity in the Middle East in the past 15 years - the Lebanese Phalange militia which slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children in the Sabra and Chatila camps in 1982 - will not be on the list, presumably because they were at the time allies of Israel.

Nor will the perpetrators of the 'terrorist' bombing of a Maronite church north of Beirut this year; the US has just refused to extradite to Lebanon one of the men who has been accused here of planning the bombing, which killed nine Lebanese civilians.

The US says that it might 'consider' such an extradition if Lebanon 'arrests the terrorists' who planned the US embassy and marine base bombings in 1983. It may be significant that testimony and charges in the church bombing trial - which is supposed to start later this summer - contains details of contacts between Lebanese Christians arrested for the bombing and Israeli intelligence officers in southern Lebanon and northern Israel.

All Palestinian groups opposed to last year's PLO-Israeli Declaration of Principles - 10 of them have their head offices in Damascus - will probably be suitable targets for Israeli attack in Lebanon (and probably suspects in future bombings), not least because one of them, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, is still suspected of involvement in the Lockerbie bombing.

However, gunmen in the South Lebanon Army, Israel's surrogate force in the country, will be safe from the world's wrath - even though some of them have killed UN soldiers. The 'terrorist' murderers of two Irish UN troops shot in the back of the head in April 1980, for instance, are still living under Israel's protection in its occupation zone near Bint Jbail, although they did live for two years in Detroit, flying there through Ben Gurion airport.

There are, therefore, 'terrorists' aplenty throughout the Middle East. Western security officials will be relieved that they can remain on good terms with some of them.

(Photograph omitted)