Beirut — The Lebanese diplomat seeing journalists returning from the mountain town of Souk al Gharb asked eagerly whether things were now quiet there. ''Some Druze (militia) sniper fire which killed one Lebanese Army soldier and some return Army fire and shelling,'' he was told.
''Ah,'' he sighed in relief, ''everything is all right.''
In a country which has been through eight years of civil war, a little sniper fire in the mountains and some Army-Shiite Muslim skirmishes in the Beirut suburbs hardly puts a blemish on the two-day-old cease-fire. The cease-fire had ended three weeks of fierce fighting in the mountains which set Christian militiamen and the Lebanese Army against Druzes, Syrians, and Palestinians. United States naval guns backed up the Lebanese Army.
But given that Monday's cease-fire was the 179th in Lebanon during the past 10 years - meaning that 178 cease-fires have collapsed between various militias and armies - the Lebanese can be forgiven if their immense relief is mixed with skepticism.
The difficulties of making peace were graphically shown Tuesday when a security committee of the Army and the rival Muslim and Christian factions failed to meet to discuss arrangements to stabilize the cease-fire. The reason: They couldn't agree on a place to meet.
The first choice, the Lebanese Ministry of Defense, was rejected by the Druzes because they consider the building ''enemy territory,'' being the seat of the Lebanese Army which they have been battling in the hills. Their shells have knocked out most of the ministry's multiple-story glass windows.
Lebanese versed in the ways of cease-fires say it will be important for the meeting to start tomorrow to head off trigger-happy militiamen.
Lebanese Army soldiers in the mountain town of Souk al Gharb, the center of last week's fighting, were enjoying the cease-fire despite the sniping at the end of town closest to Druze lines. The once-lovely resort town of low stone buildings and red tile roofs looks down over Beirut and the Mediterranean at a breathtakingly steep and clear angle, much like looking out an airplane window.
The lowrise Hotel Hajjar, which once welcomed visitors from around the Arab world, now has a Lebanese Army armored personnel carrier stuffed into the front door. There are sandbags at all the windows. Soldiers are stretched out on the floor.
The town's once-charming main street is littered with gold-colored, 50 -millimeter machine gun casings, silver-colored tank shell casings, assorted sandbags, and the debris and glass fragments of broken, empty stores and homes.
But the soldiers, freed from the immense strains of battle, are laughing, relaxing in half-destroyed homes. Some soldiers are riding on an undamaged children's merry-go-round.
Most soldiers deny that the religious strife that has torn the country apart exists in the Army. ''Don't talk to me about religion,'' says Ali, a 20-year-old Shiite Muslim from Baalbek. He is making tea with his comrades on the fourth floor of a building overlooking Druze lines. ''There is one Lebanese Army with Christians and Muslims fighting to save all Lebanon. If I had to shoot my cousin in Borj el Barajneh (a Shiite suburb where gunfire has been exchanged with the Army), I would, because it would be for Lebanon.'' But behind Ali, another soldier beckons, making nasty gestures and mouthing the word ''Druze.''
Despite the uncertainties, Lebanese with their extraordinary talent for survival have quickly taken advantage of the cease-fire. Business establishments are calling back their workers, the value of the Lebanese pound rose by 10 piasters against the US dollar, and the roads from south Lebanon are clogged with refugees returning to Beirut and the mountains.