In the early afternoon, the town is almost silent. The wind rustles the evergreens and olive trees, and rattles the venetian blinds in the shattered gaping windows of the school. Occasionally a Land Rover full of Palestinian guerrillas roars by. In between there is neither sound nor movement, except for cats prowling the rubble.

Khiam is a ghost town. Once a prosperous community of some 25,000 people, it has been abandoned by all but a few who were too poor or too stubborn to leave when war descended on them.

Their town was devastated by artillery and rocket fire last month as Lebanese Christian militiamen and their Israeli supporters tried to drive out the entrenched Palestinian guerrillas. The Palestinians are still here, proud of their victory, but there is not much left of the town they fought to hold.

Almost every house and shop in Khiam has been damaged, many beyond repair. The streets are pitted with shell holes. The electric power station was wrecked, the water supply was damaged. Carcasses of burnedout cars stand amid the shoes and magazines and shards of crockery littering the sidewalks.

Plump grapes are rotting in the arbors; figs and pomegranates drop untended from their trees.

The minaret was shot off Khiam's mosque, and the wooden roof is hanging down in splinters. The sandals laid out for visitors to the mosque are still neatly lined up outside the door, which someone has tied shut with a length of clothesline.

Khiam's people sought to protect their property as they fled, locking houses and pulling down steel shutters on their stove fronts. If they ever come back they will find it did little good. Many houses are burned and pitted with shell holes; the shops were ripped open and looted.

Khiam is only one of many towns in southern Lebanon to be devastated in the confusing little war that has raged on and off for more than a year, despite the Arab accord that ended the civil war in the rest of the counry. Other villages and towns for miles around are also abandoned and wreckend, their people scattered around the country as refugees and squatters.

Only a handful have returned since a tenuous cease-fire went into effect at the end of September. With the fields burned and crops ruined, there is little to return to and it seems possible that the fighting could resume at any time.

Khiam is about three miles from the Israeli border, and it is easy to see why the Christian forces and the Israelis wanted to take it. It is a strong Palestinian salient almost surrounded by Christian and Israeli positions, and the Palestinians here say they have been firing rockets and mortars across the border into Israeli towns.

Christian forces from the Phalangist militia took Khiam border villages, an operation in which they were aided by Israeli training and supplies. The Israelis saw an opportunity to create a buffer zone between themselves and the Palestinians, and used the Christians as a kind of proxy army. But the Palestinians retook the town in April.

About 200 men, mostly guerrillas of Yassar Arafat's Fatah faction, have been dug in here ever since, despite periodic shelling that drove off many of the civilians even before last month's Phalangist-Israeli offensive.

In that action, according to the official Palestinian news agency, "the brave fighters of the Lebanese national movement and the Palestinian revolution halted the enemy forces at the gates of Khiam for 12 days."

The Phalangists, and apparently some Israelis as well, are still on the hills and ridgelines above Khiam, but there have been only scattered shelling incidents reported since the ceasefire.

One of the few dozen residents who stayed through it all is a grizzled veteran of the Lebonese Arab Army, a Moslem breakaway faction of the defunct army of Lebanon that fought alongside the Palestinians during the civil war. He gave his name as Abu Hassan, and said that he and his eight sons, aged 9 to 27, joined the Palestinian defenders in resisting the Israeli-Christian attack. His wife and two daughters, he said, stayed in the family's makeshift bunker, but both girls were wounded.

"We are not afraid of the American guns," he said, in a reference to the American arms used by the Israelis and their allies. "This is our land and we have to stay."

Now that the fighting is over, he said, he and his sons have nothing to do because the crops were ruined and winter is coming.

Another man, who lived here with his wife and child throughout the battle, is still wearing the ancient trousers he had won when a piece of shrapnel cut his leg. The tear is unmended.

"We had no place to go," he said. "Here there are fighters and a few neighbors. We have nothing in Beirut. And our comrades in Fatah supply us with food." It is not clear who will supply the few residents with food if the Palestinians move out, as they are required to do by the cease-fire agreement.

Across the street from that house, one of the Fatah guerrillas has spray-painted this pledge across the wall of a small shop: "To the martyrs of our struggle, we say, we will continue forever until we liberate our land."