FROUN, LEBANON -- In the virtual no man's land of south Lebanon, there remains a small number of villagers who have rejected the option of flight and have chosen to cling to their lands despite the violence that swirls about them.

Here the stillness of dusk is often shattered by shelling from Israeli tanks across the valley or by Israeli gunships going into action against Moslem fundamentalist guerrillas.

About 30 small, sleepy villages are speckled along the so-called security zone Israel carved out of southern Lebanon in mid-1985 to buffer its border from hit-and-run attacks by the guerrillas.

Doggedly rejecting the uncertainty of life elsewhere, a few farmers remain pinned to their far-flung plots and modest dwellings. "All our property is here and we can't just carry it on our backs and move," said Fatmeh Ramadan, 26, mother of five, as she weighed cucumbers for a customer.

Israeli reprisal shellings against guerrilla operations have driven many people north, but those who have stayed cling stubbornly to the only livelihood they have ever known. They survive on the crops they produce for themselves and for sale to others.

"We prefer death in our homes to an existence on other people's land," Fatmeh said resolutely as she caressed her daughter Hanan, 4, who clutched her mother's skirt.

Kamel Jaafar, the mukhtar, or headman, of Froun, has his own rationale for staying, although he can spot the Israelis from his living room window.

"Look at what keeps happening in Sidon and Beirut. We have learned that he who runs away has to keep running. You cannot flee every day, not knowing the distance you will have to travel or the duration. We are now convinced that we must stay," said Jaafar, father of nine.

"We are deprived of water from the Litani River here. We don't have a hospital. Conditions are difficult for us, but the village is not ready to quit," he added quietly.

Jaafar and farmers from a string of villages bordering the security zone said Israelis shot at them every time they attempted to tend their land or fetch water. Fertile farmland lies between the villages and the Israelis' forward positions.

Vivid green and golden wheatfields sway around the desolate villages for miles. "We are always afraid they {the Israelis} will shoot," said Ali Youssef Hassan, 70, whose house in Toulin lies on the edge of the security zone. "One month ago they sniped in our direction when seven of us were planting tobacco. We did not go back for a whole week and we don't dare take our cows to graze their way."

Despite their attachment to the land, there is a mood of despondency among the villagers. The water supply is short and its transportation hazardous; the government has not sent its employes to danger zones to purchase the yearly tobacco quotas. "Our last crop is rotting and being eaten by insects," Hassan complained. It sells at the equivalent of 7 cents a pound, while "wild thyme and lavender, which does not need any work," sells for 37 cents a pound, he said.

As he sat on a small stool with his children gathered around him on the porch, Hassan told how Israelis burned down 10 of his olive trees and beehives in February 1986. An ambush of Israeli soldiers by Islamic fundamentalist fighters had sparked a six-day military push north of the border strip.

"It is not over yet; we may see a lot more," he said. He added that he had welcomed the Moslem fighters into his home on their way back from an operation against the Israelis and their local allies, the South Lebanon Army.

"We don't sleep at night. There is only this valley between us and the Israelis," the old man said. "We sit in darkness until the light from their projectors hits our window. At about six in the evening, a Mirkava tank starts firing. There was not one day in all the month of Ramadan on which we had our iftar in peace." Iftar is the evening meal that ends the daylong fast required of Moslems during Ramadan.

At least 100 civilians have reportedly died from Israeli retaliatory action. Seventeen Israeli soldiers and 110 South Lebanon Army men have been killed since 1985, when Israel withdrew most of its troops from southern Lebanon.

A surge in guerrilla attacks in the past two months has put Israeli troops on alert. South Lebanon Army commander Antoine Lahd said this week that any house in the security zone in which weapons or explosives are hidden will be blown up.

Last week two homes were razed by bulldozers in Arnoun, and Israeli armored vehicles reportedly toured the town warning residents to leave within 72 hours, according to the mayor, Rida Marouni.

Fears that the Israelis intended to widen the security zone to block guerrilla infiltration prompted Nabih Berri, the leader of Lebanon's Shiite Moslems, to seek the help of President Amin Gemayel in urging the United States to dissuade the Israelis from making such a move. Berri accused Israel of trying to create a "scorched strip" around its self-declared buffer zone.

Although the remaining farmers and their families say they are determined not to budge, there are mixed feelings about letting the Moslem fighters operate from their midst.

Mohammed Ramadan said villagers in Ghandourieh and Froun were trying as much as they could to discourage the use of their towns as takeoff points. "If we can help it, we would not allow them to pass through here at all," he said.

"We know that any pop that is fired out of this village will lead to its destruction," commented a garage mechanic from Srifa.

"In the afternoon, you don't see a soul outside his home and this place is like a ghost town," said Ramadan.

Fatmeh Mikdad, 28, one of two dozen women employed at a small, dimly lit workshop making lingerie in Froun, disagreed. "We fully support all operations against Israelis until the last soldier leaves," she said.

Headman Kamel Jaafar insisted his entire community could be considered part of the resistance effort.

Mariam Mikdad, 17, a cousin of Fatmeh Mikdad, said he was shot and wounded last year picking oranges. "If we don't sacrifice our sons, nephews and grandchildren now, we may never win. If some of us die now, we will be relieved later," Hassan said, staring across the valley.

Hamiyya Hamdoon, 28, guided us through the evacuated top floor and eastern room of her gutted house. "It doesn't matter if there has been an attack against the Israelis," she said with a sigh. "They shell us anyway. All I know is that we are in no position to leave. As long as Israelis are present on our soil, we will have to live in this way."

"We never know when a guerrilla attack is going to happen until it gets under way," said Jaafar. Rows of the villagers' little stone houses are banked with potted flowers, bougainvillea and pomegranates, the villagers' only shield when the shooting starts.

"When we hear the sound of explosions and bullets, everyone takes a corner to hide in," the headman told us. "We have no shelters here."