Beirut — The gap between political rivals in Lebanon is widening, as the hopes of permanent peace grow smaller. A front-page editorial in Beirut's As Safir newspaper succinctly described the fears of all Lebanese Thursday in the simple headline: ''Civil War.''
The political and military situation in the troubled Levant has deteriorated dramatically in recent days, revealing the depth of tension between the Christian-dominated government and Muslim leftists.
A full day of violent clashes was capped with the kidnapping of three Cabinet ministers by Druze militiamen. The ministers of finance, health, and public works - representing one-third of the Lebanese Cabinet - had set out on a ''conciliation mission'' to talk to the Druzes about ending the fighting.
In the meantime, Beirut International Airport had been forced to close after taking 20 shells during a half-hour bombardment. Two Lebanese Army positions in the nearby Shouf Mountains were besieged by Druze militiamen, while other Druzes were engaged in artillery duels with rival Christian Phalange gunmen.
United States Marines of the multinational peacekeeping force stationed around the airport spent most of the day in foxholes on full alert due to the shells that were falling near their positions. Offshore, the US Sixth Fleet was reportedly forced to move back when the Mediterranean coastline on the outskirts of Beirut was hit.
Instead, the conciliators were taken hostage. The Druzes, a secretive sect of Islam, set five conditions for release of the ministers. One condition called for the resignation of the entire government of President Amin Gemayel.
But more telling were the demands that all religious sects be treated equally by the Christian-dominated government, and that Lebanon retain its ''Arab identity,'' an indirect reference to the US-orchestrated pact between Lebanon and Israel which has triggered suspicions among Muslims throughout the Arab world.
In the end, after all-night negotiations, the government stood firm in rejecting the demands and the three ministers were released Thursday afternoon, according to Lebanese radio stations. Christian Phalange radio reported that the ministers were released following the intervention of the commander of the Israeli forces in the Shouf region.
(United Press International quoted Beirut radio as saying that the militiamen gave the ministers an ultimatum that unless the Gemayel government resigns Beirut Airport would face continued shelling.)
Few Lebanese felt the trouble was over. The sense of imminent conflict was reflected in a statement by Pierre Gemayel, father of the President and founder of the Christian Phalange Party. ''Let it be war, and let the stronger party win ,'' he said.
Fears for the future rose out of the original causes of the violence, which have not been resolved by the release, diplomats suggested.
The first round of fighting was sparked by the deployment of larger numbers of the Lebanese Army in two Shouf villages, an area Israeli forces are expected to evacuate in the near future.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who is also Lebanon's leading leftist, has repeatedly said his forces will reject the Army presence, ''whatever the consequences,'' until there is a political solution. The Druzes and other Muslim groups want the Christian-dominated government to redistribute power more equitably among the many religious communities, particularly the majority Muslims, before the Army is accepted.
The kidnapping and simultaneous violence revealed to what extent the Druzes were willing to go to bring about the kind of changes that they were also demanding in the run-up to the civil war of 1975-76.
Officials with the multinational peacekeeping force predicted that there would be repeated military flare-ups until there is a dialogue and eventual compromise between the various militias and political groups to end the causes of discontent.
The Lebanese government was not the only party to suffer a humiliating setback. Western envoys also interpreted the episode as a foreign policy problem for the US, which is now trying to resolve the Lebanon crisis. Radio Israel quoted new US Middle East troubleshooter Robert McFarlane Thursday as admitting he was ''less optimistic'' about prospects for peace due to recent developments.