Slaughter on the Isle of Peace

Middle East tension rises over `senseless' schoolgirl killings
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PMothers' screams tore through the air last night as thousands of mourners buried four of the seven girls shot dead by a Jordanian soldier during a school trip to the border.

The funeral, held in Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem, and the burials of the three other victims in nearby communities were held in accordance with Orthodox Jewish tradition as soon as possible after their deaths.

"They were murdered because of one thing, because they are daughters of the people of Israel and because of a great and terrible hatred aimed at ending our existence here," the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a eulogy.

The murders follow a period of unprecedented strain in relations between Jordan and Israel, and even if the killer proves to have been deranged, the massacre will further poison the atmosphere. Nor are yesterday's killings likely to be an end of the bloodshed; in relations between Israel and the Arabs, one atrocity is usually answered by another.

The killing of the children was cold-blooded and unprovoked. "He started shooting from a nearby hill and ran towards the children, still firing until he was only about a metre away," said an eyewitness. "He was aiming at the head. He wanted to kill." The schoolgirls had crossed the Jordan river over an old bridge, and had just got out of their bus amid fields of yellow mustard when the gunman, a 26-year-old army driver, identified as Ahmed Mousa, opened fire.

He fired for about 30 seconds at the schoolchildren until he was overpowered by other Jordanian soldiers when he paused to put a fresh clip of ammunition in his rifle. The shooting took place in the so-called Island of Peace, at Naharim, on the Jordan river, which is Jordanian territory but where Israelis are free to visit.

The girls, aged between 12 and 14, all came from an Orthodox Jewish school at Beit Shemesh and were on a three-day bus tour of northern Israel.

"All the girls screamed and cried and ran away into the bushes to hide," said Hila Ivri, 14, later in hospital. "Many girls were hurt and bloody. I was hit in the leg. I saw the gunman. He was a bad guy with big eyes. I saw a girl who was hit in the shoulder. She rolled over in the bushes and stopped breathing."

King Hussein of Jordan, who was on an official visit to Spain, said he would immediately fly home, postponing his meeting with President Bill Clinton next week. He said the killings had affected him as if the bullets had been fired "at me and my sons and daughters". In Washington, Mr Clinton said it was a "senseless denial of a future for these children".

Relations between Israel and Jordan were already deteriorating. At the weekend, King Hussein wrote an angry letter to Mr Netanyahu, saying that as a result of his policies Arabs and Israelis were "fast sliding towards an abyss of bloodshed and disaster". Several Israeli ministers accused King Hussein of creating the atmosphere in which the attack took place.

Israeli and Jordanian officers manning the border posts at Naharim yesterday were keen to show they were still co- operating. General Uzi Dayan, the Israeli commander on the West Bank and in the Jordan valley, crossed into Jordan to visit some of the wounded girls who had been taken to hospital in the nearby village of Shuma.

There were signs that relations were strained. A Jordanian captain manning a checkpoint through which the girls had passed admitted he and his men had been told to hand in their ammunition clips.

One Israeli witness claimed Jordanian soldiers at first "stood around" and did nothing when the shooting began. Others said that at first the Jordanians would not allow Israeli first-aid teams to enter their territory. David Levy, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said: "Who knows how many of these gun-toting lunatics are waiting for the green light in the form of a remark in which Israel is being described in the way it is being described today?"

The shooting took place on a piece of land which had been heavily fortified before the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of 1994. At the crossing-point into Jordan, there are still the remains of concrete pillboxes with machine-gun slits, a blown bridge and red notices with a skull and crossbones, warning of mines in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

The massacre prompted some to draw analogies with Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli army reserve captain who three years ago killed 29 Palestinian worshippers in a mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron.

The killing may relieve the international pressure on Mr Netanyahu not to build a Jewish settlement at Har Homa, in Jerusalem.

Nothing is known of Ahmed Moussa, the gunman, other than he came from a nearby Jordanian town and had been posted to the border this year.