In some meadows around this minuscule southern Lebanese village, little rugs of violets and buttercups bloom between the rocks, announcing spring despite the snow still looking down from Mount Hermon.
In others, Syrian antiaircraft batteries poke out of dug-in positions and Syrian T62 tanks squat in irregular formation with their cannons pointed south toward Israel--ugly reminders of the talk of war centering again on these already scarred border hills.
President Reagan's special envoy, Ambassador Philip Habib, has just left the Lebanese capital of Beirut, 40 miles in a straight line northwest of here, to visit Israel on the latest of his Middle East rounds to prevent the talk from turning into an Israeli attack on Palestinian guerrilla positions dotting the countryside south and east of here.
In the background as he travels are repeated charges from Israeli leaders, particularly Ambassador Moshe Arens in Washington, that the guerrillas are bolstering their forces with new and better arms, creating a danger to the Jewish state that Arens said could lead Prime Minister Menachem Begin to order another offensive against Palestinian forces here or in Beirut.
In Washington Friday, the State Department rejected Arens' assertion and said it was "not aware of any major infusion of arms."
Habib, as is his custom, said nothing of the tension surrounding his mission. But Palestinian officials and other Arab sources interviewed in Beirut expressed the belief that Israeli threats are part of a calculated effort to depict the Palestinian menace as greater than it really is, in hopes of persuading the Reagan administration that the best way to prevent war is to reduce or remove the guerrillas as a military force from southern Lebanon.
In Lebanon, there are about 14,000 full-time Palestinian guerrillas and another 10,000 could be mobilized in an emergency.
"What they want is clear," said Mamdouh Nofal, head of the military department of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "They want our rockets and our artillery back to the north . The other goal is to get the Lebanese Army into the area to take our place."
Several Western military attaches who monitor Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization said the Israeli charges of a PLO buildup are unsupported by the amount and quality of equipment acquired by the organization's various guerrilla groups in recent months. A notable guerrilla arms buildup begun last year had trailed off after July, according to Western attaches and PLO officials.
The only striking new weapons arrived here at the first of the year for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist group headed by George Habash, the attaches said. These are SZU23-4 Chilka self-propelled antiaircraft units, on tracks and equipped with an incorporated radar system to guide cannons against attacking aircraft.
The group has received about a dozen Chilkas, a well-informed attache said, reportedly as a gift from Libya. But they are well hidden because of memories of the fate of four SA9 antiaircraft missile batteries delivered by Libya last year to another hard-line guerrilla group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. These advanced missiles, manned by about 50 Libyan soldiers in Palestinian camps near Damour south of Beirut, were destroyed by Israeli planes June 2.
"They were executed within two weeks of their arrival here in Lebanon," said a diplomat.
Perhaps more important in the long run, Arafat's main-line Fatah guerrillas and the Palestine Liberation Army last year received large shipments of artillery and rocket ammunition, according to PLO officials and Western attaches.
These include BM21 122 mm ground-to-ground missiles with a range of between nine and 12 miles depending on the model--enough to reach northern Israeli settlements--and more than 20 truck-mounted Stalin Organ multiple rocket launchers, the sources said.
Artillery positions centered around Nabatiyeh and Rihan, the sources added, include about a hundred 122 mm and 130 mm cannons able to fire into--or beyond--the buffer strip created by Israel in 1978 in southern Lebanon under the nominal command of a former Lebanese Army major, Saad Haddad.
In addition, Palestinian guerrillas dug heavily into the hills around their positions last year, creating bunkers, underground command posts and ammunition storage centers designed to be out of the reach of Israeli bombs, according to Palestinian officers.
Most of the reinforcements came into place before the fall. The flow has dropped since just after July, when Israeli planes bombed PLO offices in Beirut, killing about 300 persons, and guerrillas retaliated with rocket barrages against towns and settlements in Haddad's portion of southern Lebanon and northern Israel, according to the Western attaches.
Despite Israeli and Palestinian claims in ironic agreement, qualified observers express strong doubt that guerrilla forces have acquired more than a few--if any--T54 tanks from Eastern Europe. Arab sources close to the PLO leadership say they have seen two or three T54s in underground hiding places, but that the Palestinians' only real armored force lies in about 50 T34s bought from Hungary in 1980 and 1981.
"They're not much good," said a Western military attache assessing the World War II-vintage tanks. "The Palestinians don't have the repairmen and shops to keep them going. The tanks don't have much real significance, except perhaps to balance off symbolically the tanks of Beshir."
This was a reference to Beshir Gemayel, head of the Phalange Party militia equipped with a limited number of Sherman tanks and the newer, more sophisticated super Sherman tanks reportedly supplied by Israel. The Israeli Army also has given a few super Sherman tanks to Haddad's forces in the south, U.N. observers say, but neither side's armor is very useful in the hilly border region, in the assessment of military analysts.
"We are not counting on tanks," Nofal said in an interview in his Beirut office.
Nofal was among a group of Palestinian military leaders who recently visited Eastern Europe on an arms-prospecting tour, following up on an Arafat visit to Moscow in December. Although Arab sources say the PLO leadership had hoped to get SA6 antiaircraft missiles, qualified Arab and Western informants report that the effort produced only promises for resupply of traditional Palestinian weaponry such as machine guns and missiles.
In this light, Palestinian and Lebanese sources view the Israeli charges of a buildup as an attempt to create an atmosphere in which the United States will become concerned enough to work hard on winning PLO agreement that last July's cease-fire should include all attacks on Israel, whether from Lebanese soil or not, and that PLO forces should move out of artillery and rocket range of the border.
Begin and Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon say the present agreement already specifies this--a point disputed by Arafat and the PLO leadership along with U.N. sources.
"We have only two cards to play--southern Lebanon and the recognition of Israel, and the value of the second is tied to the first," Nofal explained. "No Palestinian leader--Yasser Arafat or any other--can give up this card."