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Behind the Headlines Beirut Jewish Quarter is Empty

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The Beirut Jewish quarter stands empty and practically deserted. Foreign travelers returning from Lebanon say the Jews fled the former lively business center last week when fighting reached their area. Most of the houses were damaged in the fighting, shops were looted and several inhabitants wounded. These reports say one inhabitant, an elderly Jew, was killed by a sniper’s bullet.

According to these reports, the fighting reached the quarter last week only as the cease-fire was practically enforced throughout the rest of the city. Eye-witnesses say Phalange commandos entered the area after being chased out of their former strong points. Within hours, fighting broke out between them and Moslem units. The streets emptied within minutes and people on the quarter’s outskirts started fleeing. Those caught in the actual fighting could not leave the area and sought refuge in the synagogue building.

The Lebanese paper, “Al Howadess,” reported that Chief Rabbi Shahur Sharim managed to contact Prime Minister Rashid Karame by phone and ask for his help. Karame ordered a Lebanese army unit commanded by a man identified by “Al Howadess” as “Capt. Aga” to enter the area and escort the people to safety.

According to the Lebanese paper, the first to reach the synagogue were, however, members of the PLO, sent “on the personal instructions of Yasir Arafat.” The paper said Arafat wanted to show Lebanon and the world that the “Palestinians are not against the Jews–on the contrary.” According to this report, the PLO unit, accompanied by trucks with food and a medical unit, escorted the Jewish refugees from the synagogue to the Carlton Hotel which had been taken over for them by the Lebanese government emergency committee for refugees.

Jewish organizations in Paris say they know of no PLO units sent to protect the refugees in Beirut synagogue but confirm that on Nov. 3 the PLO sent a truckload of food and a medical assistant to the building. The PLO man in charge told the refugees if they need more supplies they can contact the PLO office and even left a phone number to be called.

JEWISH RESIDENTS SCATTERED

Many of the former inhabitants of the Jewish quarter have since fled abroad, others have sought refuge with Druze and Moslem friends in the countryside. Others are staying with Christian friends in Beirut itself or in the suburbs. Several hundred former Beirut inhabitants are believed to have reached Western Europe; Paris, London and Geneva.

Out of the city’s former 1700 Jewish inhabitants not more than a couple of hundred are left in Beirut proper. Most, of these, according to people in contact with them, also plan to leave Lebanon for good. Before the recent fighting broke out, some 4000 Jews were believed to have remained in Lebanon, most of them in Beirut. Some 6000 Jews left the country after the Six-Day War in 1967 in spite of Lebanese government efforts to convince them to remain.

The Lebanese press reported at that time that Minister of Interior Kamal Jumblatt–a pro-Palestinian–visited the Beirut synagogue in the Wadi Abu Jamil area and met Jewish community leaders to try and convince them that Lebanon’s Jews have nothing to fear. Most of them emigrated, nonetheless.

This exodus emptied entire streets, formerly inhabited by Jews, as well as a number of social institutions. The formerly Jewish school “Salim Trab” closed for lack of pupils and has reportedly been converted into a welfare center and sports club run by the Lebanese authorities. Jewish organizations in Paris say that some of those who fled to France now plan to return to their homes as the Lebanese authorities are trying to reassure them as to their future.

As for the Lebanese assurances, these organizations recall that the Secretary General of the Beirut community, Albert Elias, who was kidnapped in downtown Beirut five years ago, is still missing and no one knows whether he is dead or alive. Elias was kidnapped on Sept. 6, 1971 and was reportedly taken to Damascus. French Senate President Alain Poher and scores of other personalities and organizations have tried to ascertain his fate but it has all been in vain.

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