IT had never happened before in the history of Lebanon.
On Tuesday, most of the Cabinet went down to the battered market town of Nabatieh and held a meeting in the hastily-redecorated government building, just a few miles from the edge of Israel's self-declared ''security zone.''
The government's campaign was called to mark the 17th anniversary of Israel's 1978 invasion, which paved the way for today's continued occupation of the border-security zone. The call was originally politically sponsored, not least by Nabih Berri, speaker of parliament and leader of the pro-Syria, more secular Muslim Shiite Amal party.
But many ordinary Lebanese from across the sectarian divide enthusiastically espoused the event -- yellow ribbons pinned to their chests or streaming from their cars -- a reference to the 250 or so Lebanese detained without trial by the Israelis and the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army.
The SLA is a group of mainly Christian men from the south who have been set up by the Israelis as an extension of the Israeli Army. It is paid, equipped, trained, and ultimately commanded by the Israelis, whose several hundred troops in the zone are confined to strategic hilltop positions, that move only in convoys, and have minimal contact with the people.
Israel has been accused of using the SLA men as ''sandbags'' to spare its own soldiers' lives and protect its borders. Hundreds of SLA troops have been killed or wounded in attacks by Hizbullah and other Lebanese and Palestinian groups.
The Cabinet meeting was staged not only to express general solidarity with the south, but also to demand implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 425 of 1978, which called for an immediate and unconditional Israeli withdrawal.
To remind the nattily suited ministers from Beirut of the facts of life in south Lebanon, Israeli jets flew low-level sorties over the town, drawing antiaircraft fire from Lebanese Army guns. Earlier, in response to a rocket attack on one of their positions, the Israelis -- or their local border allies, the SLA -- shelled a couple of nearby villages.
A few hours before the sleek convoys of ministers arrived, the body of Hizbullah fighter Sherif Akkash, killed in an attack on the border zone the day before, was paraded through the streets of Nabatieh before burial by hundreds of supporters of the militant, Iranian-backed Islamic movement.
Hizbullah, which wants an Iranian-style Islamic state in Lebanon, has for years spearheaded strikes against the Israeli-occupied border zone, and has paid the price in hundreds of ''martyrs'' like Sherif Akkash.
It was clearly not amused by the Beirut government's sudden, zealous espousal of the south Lebanese cause, which culminated in Tuesday's nationwide general strike, rallies, and the Cabinet meeting in Nabatieh.
''Folkloric antics are no compensation for the government's dereliction of its basic national duty to support the people of the occupied zone,'' a Hizbullah statement said. ''It should take up armed resistance if it is serious about ending Israeli aggression.''
At its Nabatieh meeting, the Lebanese Cabinet stopped short of expressing outright support for the ''resistance'' fighters. But it defended their right to continue attacks on the Israeli occupation, and rejected Israel's calls for Hizbullah and other groups to be disarmed.
Beirut's refusal to curb Hizbullah in advance of an Israeli withdrawal -- arguing that the Lebanese Army cannot play the role of policeman guarding the Israeli occupation -- is one of the key elements in the vicious circle prolonging the Israeli presence. Israel and the SLA insist they cannot hand over to a Lebanese Army, which has not demonstrated its ability to put its own house in order. Beirut insists that if the Israelis pull back, the Army is more than capable of ensuring its border security.
''Nobody can stop the resistance,'' says Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. ''Their land is occupied, and they want to fight to take it back. Every law in the world gives them that right. But do not mix the resistance as an idea and an action with the political agenda of the resisters. That is something else, and we can deal with it later on.''
According to UN officials, Hizbullah carried out 80 attacks on the border zone in February -- a 10-year record. But inside the zone, anxieties have been stirred much less by the Hizbullah escalation, than by the Lebanese government's tolerance of the militant Islamic faction (all the other militias have been forced to disband), and by Beirut's increasingly tough and active stand on the south.
''The so-called resistance used to be Palestinian, now it is Syrian-Iranian, and it is not subject to Lebanese orders but to those of Syria and Iran,'' says Gen. Antoine Lahad, commander of the 3,000-strong SLA in the border zone. ''By adopting this Syrian-Iranian line, which we reject, the government is alienating people here, and driving them into the arms of the Israelis.''
General Lahad and many of the 150,000 or so inhabitants of the border area complain of growing harassment by Lebanese Army checkpoints when people from the zone try to travel north to Beirut or elsewhere in the country. Despite 17 years of Israeli control, they still see their future very much as lying with Lebanon, but fear the government's apparently toughening line may put them beyond the pale.
''They have the names of 4,000 people 'wanted for collaborating with Israel,' '' says Lahad, in a Monitor interview. ''Where are they going to draw the line? Just about everybody here 'collaborates' with Israel in one way or another.''
Despite the indisputably superior Israeli power backing the zone, fear for the future is widespread. Declining to give his name, one SLA soldier says: ''We've been waiting for a solution for 20 years. I used to be worried for myself, now I am worried for my children -- my son, who wants to study at the university in Beirut.''
To reassure the SLA and others in the border zone that they would not just be abandoned, the Israelis took a number of recent steps. They held a meeting of 13 government ministers at Marjayoun, Lahad's ''capital'' in February -- an event answered by the Beirut Cabinet's meeting a few miles away at Nabatieh -- and hosted the general on a high-profile official visit to Jerusalem. To pressure the Beirut government to stop Hizbullah attacks, they also imposed a partial naval blockade -- now eased -- on fishermen operating from south Lebanese ports like Tyre and Sidon.
''It all amounted to a clear Israeli message to the Lebanese government, that we are not going to give up the border security zone under pressure of war and Hizbullah terror attacks,'' Lahad says. ''If there is to be peace, Hizbullah must be dismantled militarily, and the SLA, merged with the Lebanese Army and loyal to the Lebanese state, must continue to provide security in the border area.''
With conditions and counter-demands ruling out any kind of local settlement, there is universal acknowledgment that the fate of south Lebanon is bound up with the larger peace process, especially that between Israel and Syria. ''It is not in our hands,'' Lahad says. ''We want peace, but if we can't have it, we will just have to keep going as we are.''
''Lebanon is too small a country to make peace on its own,'' says Prime Minister Hariri in Beirut.
''We have an agreement with Syria that neither will make a separate peace,'' Mr. Hariri adds. ''If Israel is unwilling simply to withdraw to the border under Resolution 425, it must first negotiate peace with Syria, since the Syrian issue is more complex than ours.''