To the continuing detriment of the Lebanese, the fertile highlands near the southern border of their country once again are a battlefield for other powers. This is not only battering the land and people but contributing to the ungovernability of the small, strategic country of Lebanon itself.
The Israeli Army late last week renewed its periodic forays into Lebanon in search of Palestinian guerrillas. In a pattern repeated at least three times in the past four months, Israeli soldiers entered Lebanon overland, fought a close-quarter battle in the predawn hours, and withdrew by helicopter. Both Israelis and Palestinians reported casualties.
This latest time, however, the Israelis shot not just Palestinians, but soldiers of the 22,000-man Syrian Arab Deterrent Force stationed in Lebanon. Syria says three men were killed. The Syrians retaliated Dec. 20 with heavy artillery shelling of the enclave in southern Lebanon controlled by a small faction of pro-Israeli Lebanese under Maj. Saad Haddad. In a move believed aimed at defusing the confrontation, Israel Dec. 21 apologized to Syria.
The Syrians claim to have seriously damaged an Israeli tank concentration in that area.But the Israelis, sensitive to charges they are tightening their grip on Lebanese land, denied they had tanks in the enclave to be damaged.
Although there is always apprehension when major Mideast powers such as Syria and Israel clash directly, these incidents have been relatively frequent over the years. Analysts in Beirut, Lebanon, and Tel Aviv, Israel, report some concern, but it is likely this latest clash will remain limited in duration and scope.
With other Arab-Israeli frontiers neutralized, southern Lebanon is the one remaining steam vent for military engagements. Caught in between (along with the Lebanese) are 6,000 United Nations peacekeeping forces.
Besides the immediate effect such armed clashes have on Lebanese lives, property, and economy, the continued use of the area as an arena for third parties is contributing to the chronic inability of the Lebanese to govern themselves.
In Beirut, Prime Minister Shafik Wazzan Dec. 20 finally succeeded in forming a new government after eight weeks of effort. The most reluctant group about supporting the new government was the Shiite Muslim Amal movement.
Amal has its strength in the predominantly Shiite south of Lebanon, as well as in the Bekaa Valley. It is an increasingly important force in Lebanon's religion-oriented "confessional" system of government. Amal has been seeking a greater degree of participation in the administration, as well as attending to political and social problems in the disrupted south. In so doing, Amal is challenging the traditional Lebanese ruling powers -- Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, Greek Orthodox, and Druse.
Palestinian operations from one side and Israeli retaliation from the other (not always in that order) have caught southern Lebanese Shiites in a vise during the past decade. This has caused a large number of Shiite farmers and villagers to be uprooted and move to other areas of the country.
Displacement in turn has increased the political profile of Shiite refugees in the capital. Long the quiet peasant class, Shiites are generally from lower economic classes, and so put more pressure on Beirut housing, food stocks, the market for semiskilled jobs, and government social services.
They also now are taking on more of the appearance of disenfranchised masses. The Amal movement's Nabih Berri has warned that his backers are ready to stage a series of strikes and other "democratic means of opposition" if they do not have more say in the government. Amal already has a strong militia force, which has clashed frequently with Palestinians this year.
Prime Minister Wazzan averted collapse of his newly formed Cabinet by intense negotiation with Amal. Lebanon has not had an effective government since the country was rocked by a 1 1/2-year civil war beginning in April 1975.