Israel and its new Lebanese ally, the Falange, are trying hard to establish that the complex Lebanese crisis is simply a matter of Muslim vs. Christian, with Jew on the side of Christian.
Others, however, see it as really a mixture of nationalism, ethnocentrism, class warfare, ideological clash, andm religious rivalry.
The danger in the Israeli-Falange simplification is that when church, mosque, and synagogue become brick and mortar symbols to rally around, important distinctions are lost -- both in the Middle East and to the outside world -- and a dangerous polarity occurs.
The pattern emerging during the month-old flare-up in Lebanon shows that when the pro-Israeli, Maronite-Christian Falange engages Syrian forces in the north of Lebanon, the Israelis respond either themselves or through their surrogate, Lebanese militia leader Maj. Saad Haddad, in the south.
On April 28, however, in a change of tactics, Israeli jets responded directly against Syrians in the north, with Prime Minister Menachem Begin saying, "The Christian communities will be wiped out and Israel will not permit this."
On April 29, for the fourth consecutive day, Israeli planes again raided several areas of southern Lebanon, according to Palestinian reports. The latest Israeli air raids came as Syrian and Lebanese leaders were holding talks aimed at bringing peace to Lebanon.
The effect, if viewed simplistically, can seem to be: Muslims (Syrians) attack Christians (Falangists); therefore Jews (Israelis) retaliate against Muslims (Lebanese and Palestinians). As happened during the 1975-76 Lebanese civil war, news commentators are already resorting to the Christian-Muslim labels in trying to explain the situation.
Many responsible Lebanese have been the first to defend the right of Muslim, Christian, and Jew to coexist in the Middle East. Last summer, Arab commentators in Beirut raised an outcry when Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi said only Muslims had the right to call themselves Arabs. He was forgetting that the founder of Arab socialism (Baathism) and many of the great thinkers of the turn-of-the-century "Arab awakening" were Christian.
The periodic calls for "jihad" or holy war in the Arab world are greeted with a cringe in places like Beirut because of the way in which such rhetoric can reinforce Israeli arguments about a solid Muslim menace out to annihilate the Jewish state.
Actually, many Syrians, Palestinians, and anti-Falange, anti-Israeli Lebanese are at least as nominally Christian as the Falangists. There are 11 Christian sects in Lebanon: Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, and Nestorian.
Many leaders of these Christian communities April 28 condemned Israeli intervention in Lebanon.
Among Muslims, there are five sects -- Shiite, Sunni, Druze, Alawite, and Ismailian -- which are more often antagonistic toward one another than toward Christians. They may be joined by relatively nonreligious Arab Baathists, Marxists, and just plain trigger-happy thugs.
In Saad Haddad's southern Lebanese "Christian enclave," more than half the population is believed to be Shiite Muslim, and Haddad's main financial support comes from American Protestant fundamentalists. And in pluralistic Israel, there are significant movements dissident to current military and political policy: communists, "Peace now" advocates, and many in the loyal opposition to the Begin government.
Important, often overlooked, factors at play in the Lebanese conflict are:
1. The Maronites long have been economically and politically dominant in Lebanon, yet they have become a minority. They are fighting to maintain their social position.
2. The Lebanese and Palestinians living in Lebanon are both nationalistic in the sense that they are seeking their own nations.
3. The Falange, founded in 1936 and modeled on German National Socialism (Nazism), is in ideological conflict with the left-leaning Palestinians and Syrians.
The benefit to Israel in calling the conflict Muslim vs. Christian-Jew is that many Westerners will automatically side with the latter. At least one well-informed Mideast analyst predicts that the Falange more and more will adopt the badge of Christianity in an attempt to enlist worldwide support, just as the Jews of the Hagganah won worldwide Jewish support in their postwar fight to create the state of Israel.
Last year, Maronite Lebanese conducted an international fund-raising conference in Mexico City, and since then they have been actively promoting the "free Lebanon" cause. In a conversation with this correspondent last fall following a Falange military rally, leader Bashir Gemayel repeatedly called attention to the "plight of us Christians in this part of the world."
It can be a stunning experience to hear a Maronite talk as reverently about Mt. Lebanon as a Jew does about Mt. Zion. Many Maronites wear fashionable gold crosses around their necks, just as many Israelis wear gold Stars of David. Some Falangists even go as far as wearing the Star of Dav id themselves.