Beirut — ''For the first time in 10 years, I am absolutely convinced that we are heading for peace,'' says a veteran physician at the American University Hospital here.
A year ago, Dr. Munir Shamma's prognosis was bleak, and it was shared by the vast majority of Lebanese. But now he firmly believes things have changed where it matters - at the grass roots.
''I've spent a month talking to fighters on both sides of the line,'' he says , ''and wherever you go they say the same thing: 'We're fed up; we want an end. We used to be the heroes, the defenders. But now the people hate us and call us troublemakers.' ''
The latest step toward reconciliation came Wednesday, with the Cabinet's approval of a plan to deploy the Lebanese Army along the main highways linking Beirut with the north, east, and south of the country, as well as to disengage combatants in the mountains southeast of the capital.
The new plan, announced by Prime Minister Rashid Karami, is the second stage of a security operation launched in Beirut last month.
There is certainly no doubt that a deep longing for peace pervades all of Lebanon's communities, and that this feeling seems to be getting through to the fighters. In the past in particular all the communities have suffered.
The killing and destruction wrought by the artillery exchanges in Beirut itself provoked nearly-universal revulsion and outrage. The old Lebanese reconciliation slogan of ''no victor, no vanquished'' is being revised to read ''no victor, all vanquished.''
Most people here are well aware that the Cabinet's latest efforts may be the last chance to reassemble Lebanon as a nation. Apart from political considerations, the economy has suffered such fundamental damage that there will soon be little left to fight over if the crisis goes on.
Logic argues that there has to be a settlement, not just a tacit acceptance of the status quo. For one thing, the country's increasingly militant and now numerically-largest community, the traditionally underprivileged Shia Muslims, cannot accept a status quo where, unlike the Druze and the Christians, they do not have their own de facto canton. Nor do the Shiites have their fair share of representation in the central government.
For another, neither Lebanese investors nor outside aid donors are likely to pump funds into the country until a political settlement holds out the prospect of long-term stability.
The difficult task of disengaging the various militias takes time. And nothing has been achieved so far that could not be undone in the space of a few hours. But, through a policy of taking small but solid steps based on a realistic assessment of facts on the ground, transformations have been realized and confidence in the peace process is slowly beginning to rise.
The most dramatic transformation has been in central Beirut where the four-mile-long ''green line'' - separating the Muslim and Christian halves of the city - is being painstakingly dismantled.
With the main crossing points now open, movement from one side of the capital - often impossible during the past six months - is simple and quick.
The next step was to extend this process into the Shouf mountains southeast of Beirut. This area is ruled by the Druze warriors who routed Christian fighters in the battle that broke out when the Israelis suddenly withdrew last September.
But many problems arose. Christian leaders insisted that any security plan for the mountains must include the return of the thousands of Christian refugees who fled their villages during the battle. Druze chief Walid Jumblatt wants the Christians back for ideological and economic reasons, but demanded that the Army move into the Christian mountain area further north as well as to the Druze-held zone.
The Shiite leader, Nabih Berri, now minister of state for south Lebanon, insisted the plan include Army deployment along the main coastal highway right up to the Israeli front line on the Awali River, which would mean taking control from the Druze and Christian militias in the Kharroub area just north of the Awali. The result would be the scrapping of an Israeli-sponsored accord between them that specified the road should stay blocked.
What emerged Wednesday was a first-stage compromise whereby the Army will be deployed along the nation's three major international highways. Most significantly, Army forces are to take up positions near the Awali River.
If that happens, it will be a sure sign that Israel's grip is slipping, and that the Syrian-backed settlement process is gaining ground.
There is certainly no doubt that Syria's President Hafez Assad, apparently back in firm control after his recent illness, is determined that nothing should impede Lebanon's stabilization. Damascus has been pressuring all the Lebanese parties to overcome the many obstacles.
In northern Lebanon, for example, former President Suleiman Franjieh, alienated from the Beirut government, had been showing signs of going his own way. The fighting last month between his Christian Marada Brigade and the incumbent, left-leaning militia in the largely Greek Orthodox Koura area south of Tripoli led to suspicions that he was trying to expand his own de facto canton.
The reasons for the fighting were unclear, but the result was not: Syrian forces stepped in and ended the fighting. Mr. Franjieh has been toeing the Beirut government line ever since.
Israel, for its part, has virtually sealed off south Lebanon from the rest of the country, following the closure of its liaison office near Beirut late last month.
But attacks on their forces and their local militia allies have risen to a rate of nearly four a day, and there is little evidence to support the belief that yet harsher security measures will do more than fuel further resentment.
The Beirut government hopes that, if it can extend its forces to the Awali River, Israel will come to see the restoration of Lebanese state control in the south as the only way of getting its own forces out of the quagmire.