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Netanyahu defiant as Israelis mourn seven slain schoolgirls

March 14, 1997

BEIT SHEMESH, Israel (AP) _ Weeping and crying out the names of the dead, thousands attended the funerals of seven Israeli schoolgirls shot and killed by a Jordanian soldier on their field trip to Jordan’s ``Island of Peace.″

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told mourners that the massacre would not frighten Israel into easing control of war-won land _ defying a warning by King Hussein of Jordan just days before the massacre that such a stand could bring violence.

``If someone thinks that the murder of little girls will defeat this people he doesn’t know (us),″ Netanyahu declared at a cemetery in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, site of one of the funerals held within hours of Thursday’s killings.

``If someone thinks he will break our spirit and that we will give up ... our holy land and our eternal capital, he doesn’t know the great strength in every person around me here.″

Wailing, mourners placed pebbles on the fresh graves of four eighth-graders.

``Keren, where are you?″ the family of junior high student Keren Cohen shouted.

``Adi, the beautiful,″ others cried, calling out for a bright-eyed, red-cheeked child.

A rabbi said the prayer for the dead, while grieving mothers and fathers leaned heavily on relatives.

At the funeral of Sari Gedayev in Jerusalem, her sobbing father leaned over the open grave, averting his eyes and unable to look inside.

The shooting on the island of Naharayim, 55 miles northeast of Tel Aviv, came at a time of crisis between Israel and Jordan over the impasse in Israel’s peace process with the Palestinians.

It was not clear whether the gunman, Lance Cpl. Ahmed Yousef Mustafa, 22, had political motives or was mentally unstable. The gunman worked as an army driver.

On Thursday morning, Mustafa sat in an army jeep at an outpost on Naharayim, a manmade island that Israel returned to Jordan under their 1994 peace treaty and is a popular tourist spot for Israelis. A sign at the entrance reads ``Island of Peace.″

Sometime after 11 a.m., an Israeli school bus filled with eighth-grade girls from Beit Shemesh’s Feirst School pulled up on the grassy hill, and about 40 girls filed out to take in the sweeping view of the Jordan River valley.

Without warning, Mustafa grabbed an assault rifle from a fellow soldier in the jeep. He ran toward the girls, shooting as he approached. Israeli reports said one of the Jordanian soldiers tried to climb off the tower to stop the shooter, but fell and injured himself.

``We all panicked,″ said Oranit Burgauker, 13, who was shot in the shoulder. ``We were on the hill, and everyone started running down. Everyone lay down so they wouldn’t be hit.″

The gunman chased the screaming girls down a grassy embankment, firing from his assault rifle.

``He came very close to us, face-to-face,″ said teacher Rosa Chemy. ``He continued to fire, except at the moment when his ammunition clip finished.″

Yelling ``Madman, madman,″ other Jordanian soldiers overpowered the gunman.

Israeli witnesses said the Jordanian troops initially barred Israeli rescue teams and soldiers from entering the island.

Seven girls, including some who were critically wounded, were put on a Jordanian bus for a bumpy 15-minute ride to Shuna Hospital in Jordan. Five girls were dead on arrival at the hospital. Outside, hundreds of Jordanians gathered to donate blood.

Israeli leaders indirectly had blamed Jordan’s King Hussein for creating the climate that made such violence possible with his criticism of Netanyahu. ``Words and a difficult atmosphere can also lead to violence,″ Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said.

Earlier this week, Hussein sent Netanyahu a harshly worded letter accusing the prime minister of endangering Mideast peace with his tough policies toward the Palestinians and suggesting they might lead to violence.

Israeli news media then reported that officials close to the prime minister had suggested the king was emotionally unstable; Netanyahu’s office denied the reports Thursday.

Speaking from Spain, Hussein bristled at suggestions that he was somehow responsible for the shooting, which he said was also ``aimed at me, my children, the people of Jordan.″

After returning to Jordan Thursday night, Hussein said that he called Netanyahu and asked to visit the families of the victims.

``I cannot offer enough condolences or express enough personal sorrows to the mothers, fathers and brothers of these children who fell today,″ he said.

President Clinton decried the slayings and urged Middle East leaders to redouble their peace efforts. Clinton called the shootings a ``senseless denial of a future for these children ... I condemn this act in the strongest possible terms.″

Netanyahu also received a condolence call from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom the Israeli leader had tried to contact in vain for several days in an attempt to discuss the growing crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The Palestinians are angry over recent Israeli decisions to build a Jewish neighborhood on war-won land in east Jerusalem and to offer a West Bank troop pullback on far less land than the Palestinians had expected.

Netanyahu and his Cabinet ministers met late into the night to discuss construction of the Har Homa neighborhood in east Jerusalem.

Israel TV said security officials warned of violence if the planned project went ahead, but aides to Netanyahu said construction would begin next week.

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