West Beirut: a Palestinian ghetto-- with Israeli fruit

The ride home used to be along the Mediterranean seafront. Now it is through a back alley, several back yards, and a field with the fence ripped down giving way to a side street and the front door.

The seaside road is now lined with PLO guerrillas, sandbag positions, and artillery pieces. Side-street entrances are piled eight feet high with sand.

Until the Israelis encircled the Palestine Liberation Organization in west Beirut June 13, this neighborhood was one of the safest and most fashionable. Now many of its high-rise apartments have enormous holes punctured by Israeli shells.

But the damage in this part of west Beirut is not nearly as severe as in the Palestinian quarter. It demonstrates how the Israeli attacks have literally hit and hurt everyone.

The Palestinian refugee camps were hovels before the June 6 invasion. Two-person-wide passageways lined with quarter-inch water pipes above ground zig-zagged through the maze of one room homes.

Now one needs mountain-climbing boots to plow through the rubble, glass, and twisted metal choking many parts of the camps.

The siege of Palestinian-controlled west Beirut has meant that only a tiny circle in the middle of this side is relatively safe. That area measures about eight square blocks.

But the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies patrol even this bit. At night even Hamra - the main street in this safe strip - is blacked out and deserted.

Journalists and guerrillas are the only ones daring to go out. Journalists had better have a PLO press card to pass the frequent spot checks along the street.

Western Beirut now is like a Palestinian ghetto. Many Lebanese are beginning to wonder if this siege will drag on - effectively making western Beirut a Palestinian city-state.

Siege is not exactly the correct terminology for what the Israelis are doing to west Beirut. They turned off the water and electricity for three days before international criticism got the upper hand.

Food supplies were spotty the first few days after the Israelis took control of the roads into west Beirut July 3. But the Lebanese, with seven years of civil war survival, smuggled food through from the start.

Then fresh fruit and vegetables seemingly rained into this half. By last week there was more produce on the street corners than there was before the invasion.

Most of it is Israeli produce. The first days, homemakers noticed the watermelons didn't look the same and that apples should't be ripe anywhere in Lebanon.

Then all pretense of repackaging the goods stopped. They were sent through Israeli lines in Hebrew-lettered boxes. Lebanese farmers are already complaining that the Israelis are undercutting their market.

Ironically, some Israeli boxes of fruit were sold in Burj Al Barajneh, the Palestinian refugee camp that has taken the brunt of the Israeli bombing and shelling.

City garbage trucks have stopped collections. They are out of gas. Many ambulances are at a standstill with empty tanks.

However, the black markets are thriving. Drivers here risk the drive to Christian east Beirut to fill jerry cans with gasoline. Some bring their haul back through the downtown, which was devastated in the civil war and now is a haven for snipers. Others bribe their way past checkpoints with the booty.

Gasoline, like some other scarce supplies, is selling for three to four times the normal price.

For a city where businesses have been shuttered for about a month, those prices hurt all but the very rich.

An estimated 400,000 people are not working because of the war. Companies have given their employees their annual vacation now.

Most businesses have warned they will have to put workers on at least half pay if the siege lasts more than another two weeks.

Some of the hearty, who have lost their homes and shops, now sell on the sidewalk of Hamra amidst ever mounting piles of garbage.

Doctors advised residents to burn the garbage warning that isolated cases of typhoid had already been detected.

Gunmen stormed west-side prisons freeing the inmates. Car bombs still go off as they did in pre-invasion Beirut. But now the victims often have to be physically carried to the hospital - or rolled on vegetable carts.

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