Recent events in Lebanon have turned the spotlight on one of the country's smallest but most influential communities, the Druze. The Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), as the Druze militia is called, is currently engaged in a tense crisis with the loyalist, Christian-dominated Lebanese Army command. When the PSP failed to return a helicopter in which a Druze officer had earlier defected from the Air Force, the Army on Jan. 2 ordered a naval blockade of the coastline that the Druze control.
Only hours after, that same coastline was the target of air strikes launched by Israeli warplanes (see map) in a belated retaliation for a Palestinian guerrilla's November hang glider-mounted attack.
The Israeli air raid, which killed three PSP militiamen and six Palestinian guerrillas, as well as 12 civilians, raised questions about why the Israelis chose to hit that Druze area - for the first time - at such a tense moment.
For the most part, the Druze have probably suffered less than any other politically active community from Lebanon's successive upheavals, and under PSP chief Walid Jumblatt's decisive and sometimes ruthless leadership, have been able to turn some to advantage.
``Cooperate with the strongest, but keep me in your heart,'' is a key injunction of the Druze faith, an esoteric, non-proselytizing offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Mr. Jumblatt appears to have taken that to heart, bending with the winds and establishing independent relationships with numerous local and outside forces.
He has a direct line to Moscow, and in 1986 remodeled the PSP on Soviet Communist Party lines. He visits Libya and openly admits to receiving money from Col. Qaddafi. Last year, he sent hundreds of his militiamen to fight for Libya in Chad, in return for payment in US dollars.
Closer to home, Jumblatt has discreet links with Palestinian groups, some of which have bases in the Druze area. The Druze are also widely believed to have links with Israel, conducted through their conservative religious shaikhs.
At the age of just 27, Jumblatt inherited the Druze leadership when his father Kamal was assassinated in a mountain ambush in 1977.
It was widely assumed that the Syrians were behind the killing of the headstrong Druze leader, who had defied them. Yet Syria today is the main ``official'' ally of his son Walid.
Although they make up only about 8 percent of Lebanon's population, the Druze - hardy mountain folk with a centuries-old reputation as fierce warriors - have always played a role out of all proportion to their numbers.
In recent years, the Druze have carved out their own de facto canton in their traditional redoubt, the Shouf mountains southeast of Beirut.
When the Israelis withdrew from the Shouf in the fall of 1983, Jumblatt's warriors overran and razed more than 80 Maronite Christian villages. Tens of thousands of survivors fled to the Christian enclave north of Beirut.
That process was completed in April 1985, when the Druze swept down the mountains and drove the Christian militia out of the coastal towns, giving the Druze canton an outlet to the sea.
Despite the bloodshed, Christian leaders now vie for Jumblatt's favor, knowing that their stock will soar if they can preside over a return of the Christian refugees to the Shouf.
``Everybody knows that the Druze and the Maronites are the only real long-distance runners in Lebanon,'' said one Christian party official. The primordial and often bloody relationship between the two mountain communities has been at the core of Lebanese politics for centuries.
Jumblatt's role is expected to be all the more important this year, with elections for the presidency (traditionally a Maronite preserve) slated for September.
The Druze have established their own civil administration in the Shouf, and run their own lives virtually untrammeled by interference from the collapsed Lebanese state. They have their own schools, hospitals and radio station. They operate their own port, which gives them an independent economic lifeline to the outside world.
While the Druze may have emerged less scathed than others, they still have many problems. Even PSP officials admit that their de facto canton is not viable, especially in the current economic crisis.