For months, the Lebanese government has called for an end to the two-year-old Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. But now officials here fear that a sudden Israeli withdrawal might create a power vacuum that could result in a deadly war between Shiite Muslims and Christians in the south.
Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karami is in New York this week to address the United Nations General Assembly. He is expected to present Lebanon's case for the withdrawal of Israeli forces and the measures the Lebanese government is prepared to take both to ensure the security of Israel's northern border and to keep the peace once the Israelis withdraw.
The Lebanese have an all-too-fresh memory of the last time Israel suddenly withdrew forces from Lebanese soil. That was in September 1983, when the Israelis pulled out of the Shouf mountains and moved farther south. In the fierce fighting that followed, Druze militias drove the Christian Phalangists from the Shouf. Hundreds of villagers were killed during the fighting.
''If the Israelis just leave the south, it will be the Shouf all over again, '' a Lebanese political observer said. The Lebanese want assurances that the Israelis will not simply pull out of the south overnight.
The Israeli occupation has exacerbated tensions in the south. The Israelis have all but closed the south off from the rest of Lebanon, crippling the region's economy. In addition, the Israelis have armed and backed the mostly-Christian forces of Antoine Lahad, a retired Lebanese colonel. General Lahad's South Lebanese Army is hated and feared by many of the south's Shiites, who heavily outnumber Christians in most of the region.
Attacks against both the Israeli forces and Lahad's men are encouraged by Shiite religious leaders. The attackers are considered to be martyrs if they are killed during an ''operation.''
The Israelis say that to ensure their security if they pull out of the south, Lahad's 2,000-man force must serve as a security buffer near their northern border, in conjunction with an expanded United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and with help from the regular Lebanese Army.
But many Lebanese analysts assume the Shiites will punish not only Lahad's men, but also Christian villagers if the Israelis withdraw before UNIFIL and the regular Lebanese Army can be effectively deployed in the south.
What has sparked Lebanese concerns is how quickly events seem to be moving.
In the past week and a half, the regional political situation seems to have changed dramatically. The new Israeli government, which took office about three weeks ago, has made it clear that it wants an early withdrawal from Lebanon.
Toward that end, the Israelis have dropped their demand that Syrian forces deployed in east Lebanon in the Bekaa Valley withdraw at the same time Israeli forces withdraw from the south.
Little more than a week ago, United States Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy arrived in Beirut ostensibly to investigate the bombing of the American Embassy in east Beirut.
But by the time Mr. Murphy left for the United States Saturday night, he had visited Israel, Syria, Egypt, and Jordan and conferred with leaders in each country on the possibilities for an Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon.
The Syrians were responsive, and sources said they had indicated a willingness to guarantee that no Palestinian guerrillas will infiltrate the territory they hold to launch attacks on Israel's northern border.
The Lebanese government, in response, has asked that any Israeli withdrawal be a gradual one.
Following a meeting with Murphy and Lebanese President Amin Gemayel Saturday, Prime Minister Karami said the government ''fully realize(s) our responsibilities regarding stability and security in the occupied areas.''
But it is unclear just how much force the central Lebanese government would be able to display in the south in case the Israelis do pull out in the next six months.
Cabinet ministers have been meeting in informal ''conclaves'' at the Bikfaya home of President Gemayel, 11 miles east of Beirut, in an effort to restart stalled reform efforts.
But the talks have bogged down, and the central government remains weak. Over the weekend, fighting broke out between Shiite militias and the Lebanese Army in west Beirut.
Tensions have been high in west Beirut, which is a Shiite stronghold, since the commemoration of Ashoura, mourning the death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, Hussein, began last week.
To date, the central government has been unable to extend its control of security beyond Beirut, and its control in parts of the city such as west Beirut seems tenuous, at best.
It remains to be seen whether the Syrians, the Israelis, the Lebanese government - with help from the Americans and the United Nations peacekeeping forces - can work out a formula that will both end the Israeli occupation and avoid further bloodshed in the south.