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Tearful Memorial for Israeli Girls

March 2, 1998

NAHARAYIM, Israel (AP) _ One bereaved mother gathered up a clump of dark earth to take home with her. The parents of another slain girl dropped to the ground and wept by blooms of red flowers spelling out her name.

Nearly a year after a mentally unstable Jordanian soldier gunned down seven Israeli junior-high school girls on a visit to the Jordanian border, their families, classmates and government officials returned to the scene Monday to remember, to mourn _ and to ask why.

``Our beloved daughters will remain children forever,″ said Yisrael Ptichi, whose 13-year-old daughter Sivan was among those killed on the school outing to a wedge of land in the Jordan River known as the Island of Peace.

The island, 55 miles northeast of Tel Aviv, was so dubbed to commemorate its return to Jordan under the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Last March 13, however, it became a killing ground.

On that day, a Jordanian border guard opened fire with an assault rifle on about 40 schoolgirls who had just alighted from their bus, stalking them into scrubby bushes where they fled screaming. Seven girls died and six were wounded in the hail of bullets.

``We cannot refer to this place as the island of peace,″ Ptichi tearfully told the gathering, which commemorated the anniversary according to the Hebrew calendar. ``For us, this will always be the island of murder and death.″

On the Israeli side of the river just opposite the island, a memorial garden has been planted, with winding stone walkways and red gardenias spelling out the name of each girl. ``In memory of the seven flowers that were plucked,″ reads the garden’s dedication.

The parents of Adi Malca, who was 13, lay down in front of the flowerbed spelling out her name and cried.

Classmates of the slain girls knelt among the flowers, some weeping. They said it had been difficult to return to this area.

``My mother didn’t want me to come,″ said 13-year-old Ruthie Cohen. ``We were all afraid.″

At a memorial ceremony on the island itself, top Israeli officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai were joined by a small entourage of Jordanians.

Perhaps reflecting the current chill in Israeli-Jordanian relations, King Hussein sent an envoy, Prince Raed Din Zeid, to represent him at the ceremonies.

By contrast, in the wake of last year’s attack, the Jordanian monarch had paid a visit to Israel and had emotional meetings with the families of the dead girls, kneeling before some parents to ask forgiveness.

In his remarks, Netanyahu referred to those royal condolences, which deeply moved Israelis at the time.

``It is at these times that peace is tested. A madman can appear _ this happened, but it is the response that matters,″ the prime minister said.

Jordan remains Israel’s only real friend in the Arab world, but ties have been badly strained by the breakdown of the peace process and Israel’s attempt last fall to assassinate a leader of the Islamic radical group Hamas on Jordanian soil.

The gunman in the island attack, Cpl. Ahmed Mousa Daqamseh, was convicted last year in a Jordanian military court and sentenced to life at hard labor. The charge of premeditated murder would normally carry the death penalty, but the military officers who presided over the trial found him mentally unstable.

Despite grief and anger over the attack, many of those present said they viewed it as an isolated act of violence that should not erode the relationship of the two countries.

``We believe there is a real peace with Jordan,″ said Avigayil Peretz, the aunt of slain 12-year-old Nirit Cohen. ``This was a tragedy, and we hope it will be the last.″

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