Clearly visible through cheap binoculars were six Israeli tanks maneuvering along a road between Sarba and Houmine al Faouqa, two towns due west of Jarjouaa and less than 10 miles east of the major Mediterranean port city of Sidon.

One valley farther to the west, the Palestinian guerrillas had found comrades in arms in the Shiite Moslem organization called Amal, meaning "hope" in Arabic, which often has clashed with them when not faced by such an outside threat.

Three miles to the west, on a ridge line dominating the valley leading down to Nabatiyah from the Syrian-held, largely Christian town of Jazzin, the local Amal leader insisted that his men and the guerrillas had held off the attacking Israeli armored column at Aarab Salim, Jebaa and Jarjouaa.

The bearded leader, who called himself Abu Ali Khomeini in honor of the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said proudly, "The Israelis were not able to enter."

One column of 20 tanks and many armored personnel carriers had pushed north from Nabatiyah, he said, and 24 other tanks were airlifted in by helicopter early this morning at Deir ez Zahrani, just to the south of the Zahrani River and four miles from Nabatiyah.

Why did the Amal leader fight against a foe equipped with helicopters, heavy artillery, sophisticated fixed-wing aircraft and gunboats whose weapons had his sector well within range?

"This is our land. It is Lebanon, not Israel," he said. "The world must know we will preserve the unity of Lebanon and that the coexistence of all religious sects will continue and that we will preserve the land of the south."

His young followers were not as enthusiastic at such a stirring homily.

"The Israelis are not stronger than the Americans in Vietnam," he said, "and we are not weaker than the Vietnamese."

The incoming artillery this afternoon was just close enough to rattle the windows ever so slightly as the Syrian officer explained his predicament over the tea he had brewed for his visitors.

"We do not want to fight," he said wearily, "but if the Israelis advance there is a 90 percent chance we will fight."

But President Hafez Assad of Syria only yesterday had reiterated his total support for the Palestinian guerrillas now under attack from the invading Israelis; indeed, he had pledged that Syria and the commandos were "in the same trench."

"That 'same trench' business," the officer said acidly, "is the same talk we used to hear from the Egyptians, but that did not prevent them from ditching us after the 1973 war with Israel and planning a separate peace with our enemy."

The incipient rattle returned, the result of incoming Israeli rounds landing a little more than a mile farther east, on the village of Qotrani. The telltale, express-train sound of incoming heavy artillery was followed by plumes of dirty brown smoke that quickly dispersed in the stiff breeze.

But what of the reports of fighting between Israeli and Syrian forces, announced officially by the Syrian Defense Ministry spokesman in Damascus? the visitors asked.

The Syrian officer of the Arab Deterrent Force stationed in Lebanon allowed that there had been some, apparently limited, exchange of artillery fire between the Israelis and Syrian batteries located two miles farther south at Aaichiye. But in his book that apparently did not count as serious. Only an Israeli advance on the ground would.

His colleague, an intelligence captain, explained: "Whether there's a big battle is up to the people at the political level."

Casting himself in the traditional role of the career officer trained to carry out orders blindly, he nonetheless said, "What is the position of the big countries? People are getting killed," he said. He waved in the direction of Nabatiyah, the Palestinian stronghold only seven miles to the southwest where the guerrillas had been overrun by the Israelis earlier in the day.

Looking at a colleague fast asleep on a cot, he said, "I do not think the West gives a damn."

Distractedly, he turned on the news on the Voice of Israel, the most trusted source of information for many Arabs.

"Look at the United Nations, 7,000 men and a buffer zone and the Israelis just walk through them," he said.

The tone of the remarks was remarkably relaxed. There was none of the usual Syrian anger at the United States for backing Israel in general or failing to act decisively to stop the invasion in particular.

Indeed, in marked contrast to the often suspicious attitudes Syrian soldiers often strike with Western correspondents, driving past numerous Syrian checkpoints on the roundabout, 16-mile road from Beirut was so effortless as to almost suggest official "be nice" orders.

Down the road, Palestinian guerrillas were equally resigned about Syrian aid. Were the Syrians helping them now? "They are just standing by," said a man wearing an ancient, hand-me-down French Army overcoat.

"We don't expect the Syrians to fight," he said.

Up the road in Jazzin, an old man hanging around the gendarmerie station was skeptical. Asked if the Palestinians and their Amal allies were fighting well, he just shrugged. "Look at the Israeli arms and theirs," he replied. Why then did he stay, since his city could well get stuck in the fighting? he was asked.

"People don't leave their homes unless directly threatened," he said, articulating the hard lesson learned in Lebanon during eight years of violence: it is almost always better to stay put than risk the agonies of a roller-skate existence as a refugee moving back and forth between menaced home and temporary shelter at what long since have ceased to be safe havens in the big cities.

But a long line of pickup trucks and cars--so packed with people that children were placed in some opened trunks--bore witness to the simpler logic of getting out of harm's way.

Even before Israeli planes dropped leaflets giving Sidon residents two hours to clear out this afternoon, many inhabitants of the port city had driven to Jazzin and then north to hoped-for safety now that the coast has come under Israeli attack.