The women and children brought bunches of bright red flowers, and the men carried placards bitterly condemning the Israeli Army as hundreds of Shiite Moslems paid their respects to the French soldiers of a U.N. peace-keeping battalion in this battle-weary southern Lebanese village.
The brief demonstration inside the heavily armed command post of the French contingent to the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) this week expressed the villagers' affection for and dependency on the blue-bereted U.N. peace-keepers at a time when their future in Lebanon is as uncertain as it has been ever since the force was created in 1978.
Several Israeli Cabinet ministers recently have launched broadsides against UNIFIL, with Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin saying that the force is no longer needed to protect Israel and Deputy Prime Minister David Levy proposing that Israel extend its own "security zone" farther north to replace the peace-keepers. Rabin recently said that he has informed all countries with troops in UNIFIL that Israel would not object if they sent their forces home.
Moreover, a cut in the U.S. State Department's appropriation for U.N. contributions will -- unless reversed -- reduce UNIFIL's budget by $18 million, or nearly 20 percent. This has raised fears among many residents of southern Lebanon that the peace-keeping force could be withdrawn or sharply cut back after its Security Council mandate expires in April.
The consequences of a UNIFIL withdrawal, according to some Shiite Moslem leaders, could be a return to the region of large numbers of armed Palestinian guerrillas and a renewal of the cycle of violence that preceded the June 6, 1982, Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
"I'm sure the Palestinians would come back with cannons and Katuyshas [rockets], and the land will burn again," said Abdel Majid Saleh, a Tyre-based political officer of Amal, the Shiite militia that controls much of southern Lebanon.
Noting that the Israeli Army invaded Lebanon in 1982 to silence the shelling of Israel's northern Galilee settlements, Saleh said, "We don't want to give them an excuse again."
That is why, he said, Amal has limited its operations to attacks on Israeli troops and those of the Israeli-supported South Lebanon Army in the Israeli security zone. Amal has taken steps to try to prevent shelling into Israel by other guerrilla groups, he added.
He attributed a recent spate of Katuysha shelling of northern Israel, including a 122-mm rocket that landed in Kiryat Shemona on Jan. 2, to "Palestinians or communists," although a UNIFIL source said that on the same day Amal militiamen arrested three guerrillas of the fundamentalist Shiite group Hezbollah (Party of God) near the launch site and took them to an Amal prison in Beirut.
Mohammed Abdel Hassan, Amal's military commander for southern Lebanon, said that if UNIFIL does withdraw, Amal would assume security responsibility in the vacated zone north of Israel's security enclave, but its forces would be strained to the limit.
"We have the ability to prevent Palestinian attacks against Israel, but not 100 percent. Even the Israelis, with all of their Army, couldn't prevent attacks from time to time," Hassan said in an interview.
Security sources in southern Lebanon said the most likely scenario if UNIFIL were to withdraw would be a gradual infiltration of Palestinian guerrillas from Beirut refugee camps and the Ain Helweh camp outside Sidon into the U.N. zone, followed by a step-up of attacks in the Israeli-SLA security enclave and then by attempts to cross the frontier into northern Israel.
"It would be just like before the 1978 Litani operation, with everybody roaming about," said a UNIFIL official who asked not be identified, referring to Israel's first large-scale armed incursion into southern Lebanon. "The Israelis would have to come back in, and this time they would never get out."
Israel already has about 600 troops north of the 300-square-mile U.N. area of operations, most of them near Hasbayya, U.N officials have said. But the 7-to-10-mile-wide security zone the Israelis set up when they withdrew most of their troops in June is mostly controlled by SLA militiamen.
While Israeli politicians have been quick to suggest that UNIFIL has outlived its usefulness, some senior Army commanders acknowledge privately that the 5,800-man peace-keeping force at least serves as another buffer between Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas and Israel's northern border, making it more difficult to infiltrate.
While they remain critical of UNIFIL's effectiveness in controlling the movements of radical guerrilla groups, these military officials say that UNIFIL's contacts with Amal at least serve a deterrent purpose for members of that militia.
Amal maintains effective checkpoints just north of Tyre to prevent Sidon Palestinians from entering the city, and also on the coastal road just north and of the Rashidiya refugee camp outside Tyre.
UNIFIL officials said that the peace-keepers have been effective in keeping guerrilla attacks away from the Israeli border, and that security in southern Lebanon would quickly unravel without them.
The approximately 14 Katyusha rocket attacks into Israel or close to the border could not have been prevented by any security force, the officials said, because the hilly terrain of southern Lebanon permits guerrillas to move into a wadi, or small valley, fire one or two rounds from a portable launcher and escape before the source of the firing can be detected. Sometimes the guerrillas set a timing device to trigger a single-tube launcher, U.N. officials said.
Such long-distance harassment is generally ineffective, as is the usual SLA response of returning fire in the general direction of the source.