Lebanon ponders prospects for peace with itself

The lanky Israeli general stands alone at one end of the L-shaped crossing point, peering over the Phalangist embankment.

Around the bend several hundred yards away is the embankment manned by Muslim leftist militiamen guarding this approach to west Beirut, a variety of flags whipping above them.

This is the museum crossing - one of the two corridors open between the still contentious halves of this soon-to-be-reunited city. The stately columns outside the battered archaeological museum between the lines and the bustle of human passage make it seem a cross between Berlin's brooding Brandenburg Gate and pre- 1967 Jerusalem's Mandelbaum Gate in pilgrammage season.

A young Phalangist hoses down his car at a sandbagged emplacement blocking a side street leading into the crossing .

''It's OK to cross,'' he says, nodding at the dirt path circumventing the barricade. ''The PLO used to be in those buildings across the way but they're not there now.''

One crosses gingerly, even though the scene is serene. Civilians and soldiers chat in a large handsome square. Taxi drivers wait listlessly in the sun for fares. The uniforms differ and it is difficult to know who is who. Nearby, west Beirut's daily chorus of gunfire is providing background to the PLO withdrawals by sea.

A balding, intelligent-looking man hurries across the square, his head down.

''I hear the gunfire and I'm anxious to get home,'' he says when stopped. He relaxes when told the nature of the firing.

He is an Armenian who has lived all his life in west Beirut and he agrees to explain the lay of the land. The crossing is now a neutral space controlled by the Lebanese Army and police. Until two weeks ago, the Syrians had controlled most of it. Then the Israelis had come in with tanks and hammered them back several hundred yards in the final attack that convinced the PLO to get out. The Israelis had then turned the parliament and the rest of the crossing area over to the Lebanese Army.

Does he think the Christians will start killing their opponents in west Beirut once the PLO is out? He is thoughtful for a moment.

''Some of leftist leaders will certainly be killed,'' he says matter-of-factly. ''But nothing on a large scale. (President-elect) Bashir (Gemayel) has done bad things in the past, but he's becoming diplomatic lately.''

Even the Muslims in west Beirut are happy that the Israelis have delivered them of the PLO, he says, but they dare not express it while the PLO is still there. That, however, does not make them friends of Israel.

''The bombing was too much. People there also fear Israel's intentions. They fear Israel will stay on.''

Life had been intolerable but somehow one adjusted.

''Every day the Palestinians and others would come into my shop and ask for protection money,'' he adds. ''We'd bargain. They'd ask for 100 pounds and I'd give 25.'' (One Lebanese pound is worth roughly 20 cents.)

''In east Beirut they also pay, to the Phalangists, so much per month for a shop, so much for an apartment depending on size. But at least with the Phalangists you get real protection for your money. We paid and weren't protected.''

Although he believes there will be formal peace with Israel, he says, he is not optimistic Lebanon will make peace with itself.

''No one here believes in miracles any more. I don't. But we're more optimistic now.''

The small parliament building lies across the street from Beirut's race track and does not presume to challenge it in scale or setting for importance.

There is simple dignity to it, even a musty elegance. But it doesn't look like the parliament of a nation - a symbol of sovereignty or the focus of aspirations for a people engaged in a common enterprise. A new parliament building is being built down the street, but it is as unfinished as Lebanon.

A long line of traffic waits to pass through the leftist barricade. At the head are command cars bearing the French Foreign Legionnaires who are making way for their American marine replacements at Beirut Port. The French are being inserted between the contending parties at this section of the green line dividing Beirut.

The young Phalangist guards at the museum and at the western crossing point are surely and aggressive.

Their commander, unlike the Armenian, says that President-elect Bashir Gemayel and the Christians can live with their current enemies?

''When the Palestinians go we will meet at a round table and make peace with everybody. Bashir met with all the Phalangist commanders and told us we are not making war against the Muslims but against the ''strangers'' who want to throw us into the sea and take our place.

In about a week, the embankments will probably go down along with all the old rules of life and death. Ready or not, Lebanon is about to attempt to live with itself.

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