The three-month siege of Christian civilians in the Lebanese hill town of Deir al Qamar is over, at least for now. But the national fractures it reflects seem as deep as ever.
For this pretty postcard of a town clinging to a terraced hillside about 15 miles inland from Beirut, the start of a negotiated evacuation Thursday was like Christmas-come-early.
It was, at its simplest, a very happy story - a welcome change for Lebanon these days. Thousands of civilians trapped in the town as refugee hostages to Druze-Christian fighting in the surrounding hills began to depart, relieved and unmolested.
The Israeli Army rolled in armored vehicles and transport trucks to manage and safeguard the operation, returning at least briefly to an area of Lebanon from which Israel pulled back in September. Townspeople threw flowers and rice. The Israelis smiled and, in slack periods of the evacuation, stretched out on their vehicles in the crisp and sunny mountain morning.
But civilians were not the only Christians leaving. For that matter, there were far fewer civilians trapped than the 20,000 estimated by spokesmen during the drama. The Israelis estimate the number at closer to 5,000.
''It's politics,'' confided one of the some 2,000 Christian militiamen also involved in the evacuation, agreeing that the numbers were overstated.
The refugees were supplied by Red Cross convoy with local staples such as flour, beans, chickpeas, sugar, and juice, as well as with blankets. No one was starving. But there were shortages of meat and fresh fruit. And the refugees were, in many cases, sleeping on the floors of public buildings or vacant houses.
The Israelis were not merely heroes in the drama. Amid the shower of rice and flowers, many in Deir al Qamar also cursed Israel. They blamed it for having created the conditions for the Druze-Christian battles and the town's stranded refugees by hastily withdrawing from the Shouf hill area in early September.
''Yes we are glad the Israelis returned,'' said the town's black-robed Maronite Christian priest, Father John Morani. ''They should return. It was their fault: the refugees, the children. It is not the children's fault. It was due to the Israelis, their departure without having established an equilibrium of forces.''
Neither the Druze militiamen nor their Christian foes seem to have foresworn the rivalry, or suddenly decided on allegiance to the hard-pressed government of President Amin Gemayel, in the wake of the Deir al Qamar compromise.
''We do not recognize the Lebanese Information Ministry,'' said an official at a Druze militia position just outside Deir al Qamar when presented with a government press card by a reporter minutes before the first civilians were evacuated from town.
''It is good to go,'' counters a Christian militiaman named Joseph, posed defiantly atop his battered jeep awaiting departure from town. ''But we will come back soon. We will achieve victory.''
As a convoy of Israeli trucks with Joseph and other militiamen inside snaked down to Lebanon's Mediterranean seashore, Druzes on the roadside hissed and cursed at them. The Druzes hurled rocks and, in at least isolated cases, swung shovels at less well-protected Christian militiamen driving the group's own jeeps and trucks down separately. Even Lebanese reporters were similarly attacked, clearly mistaken for Christian militants.
But if there was a single clear message in Thursday's initial evacuation, it was that Israel seemed to exert a degree of control over Lebanon's rival forces that the central Beirut government could not yet duplicate.
Before the Christian militia's evacuation began, both Druze and Christian gunmen could be seen chatting good-naturedly with Israelis at their separate positions on the road down to the sea.
This was in spite of the fact that the Druzes are also supported militarily by Syria, Israel's main Arab antagonist in the Lebanon equation.
''The Israelis have armed the Druze,'' Joseph the Christian militia youth explains. ''And they have armed us, too.''
As the sun fell on Deir al Qamar Thursday, both the Gemayel government and a Reagan administration that has invested a vulnerable Marine presence in that regime shared a single, unfulfilled hope: that some kind of entente - presumably involving or finessing the Israelis as well as Syria - will yet create military and political conditions in which Lebanon's official Army will outweigh its many rival militias.