Druze-Christian clashes test Gemayel government

When Druze and Christian militiamen began shooting at each other last week, they did it with the momentum of more than 100 years of mutual distrust behind them.

Now all Lebanon is watching to see if the young administration of President Amin Gemayel has enough strength and self-confidence to assert itself and enforce peace.

The obstacles would have been formidable even without the presence of foreign forces on Lebanese soil. And the area of last week's fighting - the mountains of the Shouf region overlooking Beirut - has been under the military occupation of the Israeli Army.

However, the Lebanese government received a boost Sunday with a reported agreement by the Israeli Army to pull out of the troubled area and permit the Lebanese Army to take up positions between the opposing militias.

The extent of the Israeli pullout was unknown at time of writing. With Syrian and Palestinian forces still entrenched in the Bekaa Valley, it seems unlikely the Israelis will pull back from their positions along the strategic Beirut-Damascus highway that runs through the Christian-Druze populated Shouf.

Lebanese President Gemayel's talks this week in Washington are expected to relate to his efforts to strengthen the authority of the central government in at least two respects:

* To the extent that he is able to secure a stepped up withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon, he will facilitate the wider deployment of the Lebanese Army.

* To the extent that he is able to receive United States commitments to aid and help build up the Lebanese Army, he will reduce the danger of the rejuvenated Army overextending itself into troubled areas, while greatly increasing the prestige of the force.

In the Shouf, the Israelis themselves attempted to restore order on Wednesday after an intense 48-hours of fighting in villages about 16 miles southeast of Beirut. But they withdrew after having little effect. Later, during renewed fighting on Friday, a beefed-up Israeli intervention managed to persuade the fighters to stop. Since then, the two sides have agreed to a cease-fire.

Oddly, leaders on both sides suggest the same basic solution: to have the Israelis pull out of the region; to deploy units of the Lebanese Army throughout the area; and eventually to disarm all private militias.

Before the report surfaced of a possible Israeli withdrawal from the Shouf, both Christians and Druze here were questioning the Israelis' desire to keep the peace in the Shouf. They noted that in the early rounds of the fighting the Israelis simply watched. Some suggested it was in the Israelis' interest to keep the various forces in Lebanon fighting each other - rather than turning on the Israelis.

Others contended that by allowing the Christian militia and the Druze militia to fight, the much stronger Christian force would eventually get the upper hand and the Druze would have to turn for help to the Israelis. This would facilitate better relations between the Israelis and the Lebanese Druze. It would also serve as a justification for a continued Israeli presence in the heart of Lebanon.

When the fighting broke out last week it was technically between the right-wing Christian Phalange militia and Druze fighters of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). But as the battles escalated into artillery exchanges they took on a wider involvement, pitting sect against sect.

Tension between the two militias has grown as a result of several months of kidnappings, sniping, and on-again off-again armed clashes, most often with civilians as the victims.

The PSP, headed by a Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, was an ally of both the Syrians and Palestinians during the years of conflict in Lebanon since 1975. This alliance greatly increased the strength of the PSP. Subsequently, as the PSP began consolidating its control in the Shouf, many Christians fled to Christian strongholds to the north.

When the Israeli invasion pushed into the villages of the Shouf in June, neutralizing the PSP, the Christians began to return - but they came back with the Phalange militia. That's when the trouble began.

The Druze felt threatened by the entry of the Phalange into their area, particularly under the protection of Israeli guns. And they objected to the establishment of Phalange checkpoints along roads near Druze villages. They knew , too, that some Christians have scores to settle with the weakened socialist organization, which can no longer count on support from Syrian troops or Palestinian guerrillas - archenemies of the Phalange.

The Israeli position in all this is ambivalent. On the one hand, they are very closely aligned with the Christian Phalange. The two forces are working in concert in many areas. On the other hand, there is a large and loyal Druze population in Israel, with many family ties to the estimated 300,000 Druze in Lebanon. In addition, Israeli Druze serve in the Army and many have reportedly threatened to discard their Israeli uniforms to go fight alongside their Druze brothers against the Phalange.

As a result of appeals from Israeli Druze leaders, Israeli troops with tanks and armored cars have intervened between the two groups. But it is only a temporary solution and it greatly increases the vulnerability of the Israeli Army.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.