KFAR TIBNIT, LEBANON — ANTOINETTE RAHAL and her daughter Chadya carefully inch through the Kfar Tibnit checkpoint, one of five separating the nine-mile-wide ''security zone'' Israel occupies in southern Lebanon from the rest of the country.
The Lebanese villagers living inside the zone have always faced impromptu attacks by the Hizbullah terrorist group, which is backed by Iran and Syria, as well as bursts of shellfire from the Israeli-sponsored South Lebanese Army (SLA). Even though Israel and Syria, which maintains control over Lebanon, are talking peace in Washington, people here don't feel any more secure.
''We got caught in the middle of a gun battle one morning and had to hide behind some rocks,'' recalls Mrs. Rahal. ''Neither [the SLA nor Hizbullah] seem to care about our lives. We are just pawns in a political game between Israel and Syria.''
Hizbullah, or the Islamic Party of God, has vowed repeatedly to expel Israel from southern Lebanon.
The Lebanese government, although anxious to reclaim sovereignty over the border zone Israel has occupied since 1978, has been careful to avoid giving more than a verbal endorsement to Hizbullah.
''The real encouragement comes from Damascus,'' says one Western diplomat. ''Syria cannot fight the Israelis, so it sits back and lets Hizbullah fight, putting pressure on Israel in the peace negotiations.''
Hand-to-hand combat between SLA militiamen and Hizbullah fighters is often bitter and bloody. Hizbullah combatants launch lightening-quick strikes against the fortified mountaintop observation posts used by SLA fighters that enclose the security zone.
The Israeli-trained and sponsored SLA has lost hundreds of men in the past several years protecting both the zone and Israel's northern border from guerrilla attack.
But many of the SLA militiamen worry about what will happen to them if peace between Israel and Syria is reached. Rumors that Israel is prepared to leave have caused morale to plummet among SLA fighters, say some militiamen.
Although Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres recently visited the militia's headquarters in Marjayoun to offer support, one high-ranking officer, who did not want his name to be used, said he fears Israel will eventually abandon his men.
Many officers are preparing passports to flee the country. More than 200 of the 3,000 militiamen have already deserted their posts this year, according to the French Press Agency.
Recent threats by the government in Beirut to prosecute those who work for Israel have raised yet another concern. Chief Military Prosecutor Nassry Lahoud issued arrest warrants on Feb. 6 for 89 men accused of ''collaboration.'' The charges, though just a formality since all 89 live inside the border zone, have begun to cause panic.
Robyn Abboud, a senior SLA officer who is on the list of those to be prosecuted, claims that the government order to pursue those who deal with Israel was instigated by Syria. ''The Lebanese government has no freedom to make its own decisions,'' he says. ''The decision is Syrian.''
Mr. Abboud also refuses to consider himself a traitor. ''We were sent here in the first place by the Lebanese government to keep order in the south.''
Civilians within the security zone who continue to collaborate with Israel, like residents of the Christian village of Klea, are also uneasy. Despite reassurances from Israel, Clovis Francis, for example, feels caught in the middle. ''The government abandoned us.... It gave us no choice but to deal with Israel. Now what are they going to do with the 8,000 people who either work or fight for Israel, throw them all in jail?''