A scenic island, a group of schoolchildren, a stream of bullets
NAHARAYIM, Jordan (AP) _ Just after 11 a.m., the white-and-purple Israeli school bus carrying junior high school students on a class trip rumbled past the sign welcoming them to ``The Island of Peace.″
It parked on a grassy hill, and about 40 girls, most of them in jeans and sweaters, filed out and stood by the road, admiring the sweeping view of the Jordan River Valley.
A minute later, seven of the girls were dead or dying _ cut down by a hail of automatic gunfire that came from behind them and transformed the island of Naharayim into the latest symbol of the hatreds seething in the Middle East.
The man-made island at Naharayim is a 250-acre wedge of avocado groves and wheat fields created in the 1920s when the Jordan River was split in two for a hydroelectric power station.
Jordan gained sovereignty over the island under the 1994 peace treaty, then leased it back to the Israelis, who farm there under Jordanian military guard and Jordan’s red, green, white and black flag.
It also became a tourist site; area attractions include an abandoned power station and a railroad station built by the Turks, its tracks long ago uprooted.
Several Jordanian soldiers in light brown camouflage stood atop a 30-foot watch tower 100 feet away, and two more sat in an armored jeep. They were supposed to be guarding the site.
One of those guards was Lance Cpl. Ahmed Yousef Mustafa. The 22-year-old from the nearby town of South Shuna works as an army driver.
Without warning, Mustafa grabbed an assault rifle from a colleague in the jeep.
He ran toward the schoolgirls, shooting as he approached. The terrified children fled off the road, trying to hide behind a grassy embankment and screaming for help.
``I saw the girls falling in the bushes and trying to hide. I saw some were injured,″ said Keren Ivri, an eighth-grader who was shot in the stomach. ``I was hit with a bullet ... and I fell.″
The gunman fired ``face-to-face, point-blank,″ teacher Rosa Chemy said.
Israeli news media reported that one of the Jordanian soldiers tried to climb down from the tower to stop the shooter, but fell and injured himself. None of the other soldiers tried to help, Israeli witnesses said.
``The Jordanians watched him and did nothing until he finished shooting. Only then they moved,″ said Raz Hess, a Israeli guide leading another tourist group nearby. ``He had lots of time to change the magazine clip and he had no problem emptying it.″
Finally, Jordanian soldiers yelling ``Madman! Madman!″ overpowered the gunman. He was later taken to army headquarters in Amman.
Oranit Burgauker lay on the grass, unable to feel her arm as blood flowed over her body. A Jordanian soldier lifted her up, placed her in the back of a red truck and left.
Soldiers placed a schoolmate next to her. The friend’s face was white. ``I think she was dead,″ the 13-year-old Israeli girl said hours later from a hospital bed in nearby Tiberias, Israel.
Despite the pain of the bullet in her shoulder, Oranit got off the truck and ran back to the school bus. ``I asked my friend to hold my shoulder to stop the bleeding,″ she said.
She and the others in the bus drove away.
Israeli teams took some of the girls back to Israel; others went to Jordanian hospitals.
Seven of the girls, some already dead and others critically wounded, were packed into a bus for the bumpy 15-minute ride to a hospital in the Jordanian town of Shuna, three miles away. Five of them were dead on arrival.
Dozens of Jordanian farmers in traditional robes and red headdresses crammed into the hospital to donate blood. Some of the donated blood was used to help save an Israeli girl who had a bullet removed from her chest.
Ibrahim Alayan, 33, was one of the farmers in line.
``We are at peace,″ he said. ``There should not be killing and such agony.″