Following the tradition of 12 centuries, the Maronite Christians of Lebanon now appear prepared to adopt a defiant and daring strategy to ensure their supremacy and endurance, this time over the Muslim majority in the long-term struggle for power.
A series of incidents by the Christian ''Lebanese Forces'' militia, dominated by the right-wing Phalange Party, has triggered alarm bells among diplomats, members of the multinational peacekeeping force, many Muslims, and even some non-Maronite Christians about their intentions at a time when the United States is attempting to help Lebanon pull itself back together again after eight years of chaos.
Tactics by the Lebanese Forces to back up this strategy have alienated both friend and foe in recent weeks.
The most blatant example was the order by the Israelis for the Phalangists to leave key bases and barracks in southern Lebanon. The Israelis have long been the Lebanese Forces' closest ally. Radio Israel said the order went out because the Phalangists were ''not coordinating their activities'' with the Israeli military. It cited incidents of harassment by the Phalangists of local Shiite Muslim residents, independent roadblocks, and raids of private homes.
The order first went out last Thursday, but the Lebanese Forces refused to leave their strategic posts, particularly at Kfar Falous near Sidon. Early Tuesday morning, the Israelis surrounded the Sidon barracks to carry out the eviction. Phalange officials claimed similar actions were taken at other bases south of the Awali River, where Israel plans to redeploy and establish a security zone.
The move was immediately interpreted by the Beirut press as a reflection of the strain in relations.
The memory lingers throughout Lebanon of the massacre last fall of an estimated 800 Palestinians in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila camps. An Israeli inquiry linked the massacre to Phalangist gunmen.
Harassment of the Shiites, Lebanon's largest religious sect, reflects how the Phalange militia has alienated a rival group, seriously endangering hopes of reconciliation among Lebanon's diverse and disparate religious communities.
The basis for conflict is not just in the south. Multinational force officials report that the Phalange has set up new offices in three Shiite suburbs in Muslim-dominated west Beirut. They claim the presence has provoked recent confrontations with Amal, the Shiite militia, in which five people have been killed and an undisclosed number kidnapped.
The incidents have led to at least one secret government report predicting that the greatest flashpoint for future civil strife is between the Maronites and the Shiites. Though Lebanon is often called the only democracy in the Arab world, the Maronites now hold most key positions in government, while the Shiites now make up the largest component of the Lebanese population. Of the three biggest sects, the Shiites have the smallest role in the government.
Diplomats and sources with the multinational peacekeeping force suggest the intimidation is designed to try to keep the Shiites ''in their place,'' to provide a ''sampling'' of the consequences should they challenge Maronite supremacy.
Although the Lebanese Army is deployed in all three suburbs, Western diplomats contend the units have been ''officially discouraged'' from intervening. This has led to charges from Amal leaders that the Lebanese Army, which is also dominated by Maronites at the top levels, is now an instrument of the Phalange.
That suspicion among Muslims has been deepened by the reappearance of the Lebanese Forces, in uniform and often armed, on the streets of east Beirut. Although they were officially banished from their strongholds in the Christian-controlled side of the capital last February - as the Muslim militias were from the streets of west Beirut the previous September - the Phalange wanders openly and unchecked by the Lebanese Army.
The public display is more important politically than militarily at this stage, for it symbolizes defiance of the government of President Amin Gemayel, a former Lebanese Forces commander and member of the Phalange Politburo. Mr. Gemayel has pledged repeatedly that his policy is to reconcile the religious and political rivals. Some in the Lebanese Forces, however, fear he might make concessions to Muslim communities which would hurt the dominance of the Christians.
The key test will be the outcome of current negotiations to end the sporadic battles between Christian and Druze militias in the Shouf mountains east of Beirut. To many diplomats, ending the ''mountain war'' is viewed as the litmus test of whether Lebanon can be reconciled.
It is also essential for the deployment of the Lebanese Army after the partial Israeli withdrawal. All four members of the MNF - the US, France, Italy, and Britain - have made peace in the Shouf a condition for their backup role during the transition.
The clashes began last fall, when the Lebanese Forces moved into additional positions opened to them by the occupation by the Israeli Army. Druze militiamen feared being overwhelmed politically and militarily by the Phalange. Fighting ensued.
Ironically, both schismatic sects - one of Roman Catholicism, the other of Islam - originally migrated to the isolated Mt. Lebanon range centuries ago to escape religious persecution elsewhere.
News reports claim the Druze have three basic immediate conditions to end their fighting: removal of Lebanese Forces barracks, an amnesty from prosecution , and the right to retain their weapons until the Phalangists have also been disarmed.
Although Lebanese Forces commander Fadi Frem said in an interview with Beirut's Monday Morning magazine this week that he was willing to end all ''military appearances,'' diplomats claim the Maronite militia is so far not willing to abandon its positions totally.
The Phalange attitude is based on both current and historic events. Since Lebanon is the only Christian-run state in the Middle East, the Maronites fear any major military or political concession that would threaten their status and lead them to be overwhelmed and eventually persecuted by Muslims. They fled from Syria in the 8th century and have managed to hang on in the easternmost edge of Christendom since then. They are not about to give up now.
Although they originally had the numerical edge when the ''National Covenant'' divvied up power in the 1940s as Lebanon gained independence from France, the populations of both Sunni and Shiite Muslims are now widely believed to exceed the Maronites. Yet many Maronites, even some who do not support the Phalange, are concerned that Muslim rule, particularly by the Shiites, could mean the end of democracy in Lebanon.
The Phalange sense of superiority is reflected in the fact the party was founded by Pierre Gemayel, father of the President, in the 1930s, modeled on the nationalism and socialism of Italy's Mussolini and Spain's Franco.
That the political dogma is matched by hardened tactics against rivals is what has heightened the tension in the troubled Levant, where compromise is crucial to the peace and survival of the country.
Diplomats in Beirut are concerned by recent events, which may indicate that the Phalange feels the price of continued conflict is lower than the cost of compromise to their standing.