Lebanon's plight

Lebanon again seems poised on the edge of a major eruption. So tangled is the situation that it is difficult to sort out what is happening. But the flareup of fighting is a reminder of the tragedy of that tiny land and the seeming inability of the outside world or the Lebanese themselves to cope. Because of internal and external conflicts Lebanon has been reduced to a shadow of a nation. Renewed awareness of its plight should spur the world community to greater effort to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Who is most responsible for the outbreak of fighting between Christians and Syrian units in northern Lebanon is not clear. Secretary of State Haig, warning of "serious" consequences if the fighting continues, blames Syria. Damascus, on the other hand, claims the Lebanese Christians are trying to encircle Syrian soldiers who are in Lebanon policing a cease-fire. In the background, meanwhile , simmer all the local rivalries and conflicts which so complicate the Lebanese picture: Christians against Syrians and UN units, Christians against Muslims, Christians against other Christians, Lebanese against Palestinians, Israelis against Palestinians. There is more than enough blame to go around for the general chaos.

While Western and other diplomats work behind the scenes to calm the waters again, two things might be said about the situation. One is that Lebanon will have difficulty pulling itself together as long as the Palestinian question remains unresolved. Lebanon is now where some 50,000 Palestinian guerrillas, their refugee families, and their political organization are based, and no country could easily survive the stresses and tensions arising from the presence of such a militant force and its continuing war with Israel. How can any government in Beirut function normally when the country remains a battleground for Arab-Israeli confrontation?

It is obvious that a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli territorial dispute, including the refugee problem, would also lift a long and heavy burden on Lebanon.

However, even if the Palestinian thorn were removed, Lebanon would not necessarily be at peace. The influx of Palestinian activists in the 1970s greatly aggravated problems in Lebanon. But it cannot be said that the Lebanese themselves have made a maximum effort to achieve a consensus among the various segments of their society and to evolve a governmental system in which Muslims are permitted to share power equitably with the dominant Maronite Christians.

The outside world can do its utmost to keep the peace process moving. But Lebanon, too, with the encouragement of its Western and Arab friends, needs to sort out its internal relationships. There is little evidence, for instance, that the Christians are prepared to give up a certain "warlord mentality" -- with family-led factions holing up in their own territorial enclaves with guns and feuding with other factions. There must be, in short, a political will to work for national unity.

Syria and Israel, for their part, also are mired in Lebanon. It is doubtful that Syria wants to provoke a war with Israel by attacking the Christians. Ironically, it was in part to protect the Christians that the Syrian Army initially went into Lebanon. But now, if the Syrians pulled out, the Christian forces would take over, a bloodbath could ensue, and the Syrians would be faced with coming to the rescue of the Muslims.

As for Israel, as long as the Syrian activity is in the north and not in the Christian enclaves in the south which serve as a buffer between Israel and the Palestinian and Syrian units, it probably will not escalate the fighting by intervening. The US can be pleased that the Begin government has cautiously endorsed a "hands off" policy. But the danger of Israeli involvement has to be taken into account. It is generally believed that Israel has no territorial designs on southern Lebanon, but past Israeli sympathy for a separate Maronite Christian state continues to raise questions about its strategic intentions. The fact that the Israeli-backed Christian militia units have refused to let the Lebanese Army move into southern Lebanon reinforces doubts about Israel's long-range plans.

Lebanon, in a nutshell, is a cauldron of conflicting nationalist and religious emotions. Many warn it could become the focal point of another war in the Middle East. This is one reason why a peace settlement is crucial. The other is the need to prevent the demise of a once-prosperous and vibrant state.

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