Blocking aid to Beirut

As Philip Habib's peace efforts struggle on, international attention should be called to the worsening plight of the people of west Beirut. Israel's unrelenting bombardment of the city -- in the midst of negotiations and despite strong US urgings to desist -- not only has continued to take many lives but is preventing humanitarian organizations from carrying out relief operations. The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Beirut is quoted as saying that ''the overall situation of the civilians is deteriorating seriously.''The target of Israel's effort to strangle the city is the PLO. But thousands of vulnerable civilians, especially children, have fallen victim to the pounding, and they need help. The problem is that the Israelis are barring some of the aid from getting through, on grounds it might contain weapons or be diverted to the PLO. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says it it is waiting for permission to truck in 20 tons of food supplies from its staging base in Damascus. The Middle East Council of Churches and World Vision International also are reported waiting for Israeli authorization to send in more food shipments.Overall, the food situation is not said to be desperate. Fruit and vegetables, for instance, are available because they are not being exported now. But food is extremely costly and this is beginning to pose problems for those who are without work and do not have money. Hence the need for aid distributions.Perhaps the major problem is the lack of good water. The Israelis have turned the water back on again but, because there is no electricity, people must rely on street mains, often broken or damaged from the shelling. It is hard to understand the military justification for reducing the water supply. Israel apparently calculated that the cutoff of water would drive off the civilians, but many have remained at great risk to their lives in order to prevent Palestinian refugees from the south moving into shattered but vacated apartment buildings.Also critical, according to US officials, is to assure the continuing supply of medicines and of fuel to keep generators running in the American University hospital and other medical centers.Local and international organizations seem to be coping with the mounting need for emergency assistance. The Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross has appealed for some $ 2l million, and almost the entire amount has been subscribed, including a $1.5 million contribution from the United States. UNICEF sent out an appeal for $5 million in emergency aid and got a generous $9 million. Money is therefore not an issue in the short term. Nor is government and public sensitivity to the need.However, permanent access is. Is it not time for Israel to stop, once and for all, the merciless pounding of the city and to let relief supplies go through? Does Israel wish to be viewed as a nation that knows no limit to the suffering it is willing to inflict on innocent people?

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