The siege of Beirut -- and the reluctant Israeli colonel

The yellow flames of little stoves sap the oxygen in the lobby of the building that houses Reuters news agency in the heart of west Beirut.

Women and children squat as they cook over the stoves. Young men sleep on mats on the cool stone floor.

Conditions in west Beirut are not always so dire. But every day Israeli bombs and shells displace more people and create more situations like the one in the Reuters lobby. Whole neighborhoods have packed up and fled, leaving parts of west Beirut virtual ghost towns. Other parts teem with squatters.

Though the Israeli Army is still only at the gates of west Beirut, its guns are forcing families out of their living quarters on the edges of the city. More and more people are falling back into the center of west Beirut - especially to the Hamra and Verdun areas - and the center of Burj Al Barajneh refugee camp.

''The Israeli guns are all around,'' says Malek Khouri of the Lebanese-Palestinian Joint Relief Committee as he traces the perimeters of a map of west Beirut.

''From the hills they hit the southern suburbs, and from the sea they hit the coast, and from the air they hit anywhere,'' he says.

Mr. Khouri says the Israeli pounding of the city's edges is causing residents to congregate in the center of west Beirut. If the bombing tapers off for more than 24 hours, he says, people begin trying to return to their houses.

The latest uprooting of a neighborhood was occurring July 28 in the Rouche area, on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. Israeli jets and gunboats bombarded this neighborhood intensively July 27. Other coastal neighborhoods were also hit.

Cars piled high with personal possessions - a familiar sight in this country since the Israeli Army invaded June 6 - were streaming out of Rouche. Many of these displaced families would leave the city and others would look for safer shelter in west Beirut.

Mr. Khouri estimates that there are 9,000 displaced families in the southern suburbs of Beirut and 8,000 in west Beirut proper. This equals about 102,000 persons, 11,000 of whom are children under two years of age.

For the moment there seems to be adequate stocks of food, clothing, and medical aid in west Beirut to meet the needs of the displaced. A combination of humanitarian agencies, some cooperating and others in competition, have distributed supplies since the opening days of the conflict.

The Red Cross sometimes is best equipped to aid people near the front lines, particularly in the Burj Al Barajneh camp. The Higher Relief Commission concentrates on Lebanese nationals. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) aids Palestinians. And Amal, a Shiite political organization, primarily aids the city's large and hard-hit Shiite population.

In recent weeks, the Lebanese-Palestinian Joint Committee, which was founded in early June by the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Lebanese leftist National Movement, and Amal, has taken over most relief distribution. This reflects the fact that the PLO and National Movement are the predominant military powers in west Beirut and have had to coordinate the movement of displaced persons with their military movements in Beirut.

Israel's military pattern around west Beirut the past six weeks has been to pressure the outskirts of the city through day after day of bombing, shelling, and minute encroachment. Along with Israel's continuing cutoff of electricity (and water, too) military pressure seems aimed at clearing the population out of these areas in preparation for an Israeli attempt to seize some amount of territory.

Some observers here believe the recent shelling of the west Beirut seacoast was in preparation for an Israeli landing operation. Regardless of what its purpose might be, the shelling was succeeding in restricting movement even further in this besieged sector of Beirut and compounding the feeling that this is an urban prison.

If the military pressure continues - and lack of a diplomatic breakthrough July 28 seemed to foreshadow more fighting - then the refugee situation is likely to worsen. John Makarian of Haigazian University believes the number of displaced will soon begin to decrease in Burj Al Barajneh as the fighting there makes it uninhabitable. He believes the center of Beirut will eventually be crowded with Palestinians, Lebanese, and foreigners who have chosen it as the last refuge in this increasingly claustrophobic city.

A problem that may come then is that the center of Beirut will also be the last fallback position for the beleaguered PLO - and consequently another inviting target for Israeli jets and cannons. If that time comes, it seems that there will be no more room to which the many-times-homeless of Beirut can run.

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