Gemayel comes under fire from Lebanon's Christians

Lebanon has moved one step closer to disintegration. The position of President Amin Gemayel may come under direct threat from within his own Christian community, Christian sources say.

Lebanese Christians are in a state of uproar following the latest series of disasters to befall Christian villages in the Sidon and Kharroub areas in the south of the country.

The recent upheavals have caused thousands of Christians in two separate clusters of villages to flee their homes. They have sought refuge in the mountain area of Jezzin, east of Sidon, and even moved south into the border region where Israel intends to establish a ``security belt.''

For months now, Lebanese leaders have publicly accused Israel of trying to segregate the Lebanese communities and rearrange the population so that the Christians are driven south to provide Israel a buffer against hostile Muslim or Palestinian forces. Once dismissed by some as an unlikely ``conspiracy theory,'' that scenario has been advanced to the verge of realization by the latest events.

The latest crisis arose after right-wing Christian militia forces unilaterally withdrew from Christian villages near Sidon last Wednesday after a month of violent sectarian clashes between the Christian forces on the one hand, and Muslim militias, Lebanese Army troops, and Palestinian refugee camp residents on the other. The Christian militia withdrew at the demand of the Muslim side and also under pressure from Christian political leaders in Beirut, including President Gemayel.

Lebanese Army forces moved into the villages as the militia began pulling out. Christian militia sources said that under the deal worked out by political leaders in Beirut, the Army would protect the Christian community.

However, the Army stood by and watched when, 24 hours later, Muslims and Palestinians moved up from Sidon and attacked the Christian villages. Christian families streamed eastward into Jezzin, which is held by the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. Other Christians fled north across the Awali River.

Saturday night, Druze forces in the hills above the Kharroub enclave suddenly descended into Christian villages and seized control of a section of the main Beirut-Sidon highway and the port of Jiyye.

The Army's failure in the Sidon area was compounded the same night, when the Druze's mainly Sunni Muslim allies in the Sidon area stormed three more villages previously held by the Christian militia. The collapse of the Kharroub enclave before the Druze forces dealt another blow to the prestige of the Lebanese Army.

The multiple disaster for the Christians -- and intimations of an even greater catastrophe should the Jezzin enclave come under attack -- has caused a furor in Christian political circles in Beirut.

Much of the Christian anger at the Army's failure appeared to be directed at President Gemayel himself. ``The militia feels it was double-crossed by Gemayel,'' says one informed source. ``There is no way he is going to finish his term [ending 1988]. The countdown has definitely begun, and it may be only a matter of days.''

Gemayel's position within his own community is further complicated by clear signs that the latest moves by the Druze and Muslim militias had a strong green light from their Syrian allies. Gemayel was already under fire from Christians for his close cooperation with Damascus. Even more damaging may have been the fact that he held a long meeting with a senior Syrian envoy only hours before Druze and Muslim militias struck in the Kharroub and Sidon regions.

Many questions are raised by Syria's apparent approbation of steps which clearly accelerate Lebanon's partition and the trend toward cantonization.

One Christian source speculated that the Druze takeover in the Kharroub may have had the prime aim of allowing anti-Yasser Arafat Palestinian forces to enter the Sidon area and take control of the Palestinian camps there while other pro-Syrian forces secure the city itself. (Both were former strongholds of Syria's hated enemy, Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat.)

What happens to Jezzin will provide a clear indication of Syrian intentions. If Syria allows or encourages its militia allies to storm the area in order to drive out the Israeli-backed SLA, another massive displacement of Christian civilians is inevitable, and they will have nowhere to go but the border belt which Israel has vowed to defend.

The prospect does not appear to alarm the Israelis. Israel radio Sunday quoted Israeli miltary observers as saying: ``If Druze, Sunni, and PLO forces attack Jezzin, they will capture it. Israel refuses to send troops, and has made it clear that Jezzin is outside the security zone it intends to establish along the border.''

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