Calm urged in wake of massacre

The soldier killed at least seven of the schoolgirls, who were on a field trip Thursday to the Israel-Jordan border in the northern Jordan Valley. Six others, including at least one teacher, were wounded.

President Clinton condemned what he called the "inexcusable and tragic act of violence" that took place on a hilly enclave, dubbed the "Island of Peace."

Under Jordanian control, the island in the Jordan River was leased to Israel under the two countries' 1994 peace treaty.

Clinton called Netanyahu from Air Force One to express his condolences. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed her "shock and horror at the attack."

"Violence can never be an answer," Albright said in a statement. "We call upon all leaders in the region to calm the situation, to do their utmost to prevent future violence in any form, and to redouble their efforts to forge a just and lasting peace."

Thursday's attack came against the backdrop of escalating tensions in the Middle East.

Arab and other world leaders had joined Palestinian officials in condemning recent Israeli decisions to build a new Jewish neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem and to withdraw from a smaller area of the West Bank — 9 percent – than they deemed adequate.

Palestinian discontent boiled over with a decision by Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to call an international conference this weekend in Gaza to discuss the peace process.

Arab leaders brought their discontent to the United Nations, where the General Assembly voted 130-2 on Thursday to call on Israel to suspend its plans to build at Har Homa.

At the same time, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned Thursday's shooting in a statement, adding that it "highlights the need to renew confidence in the peace process."

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers also condemned the attack. But Democratic members of Congress launched an attack on Clinton's decision to send U.S. Consul General Edward Abington to Arafat's conference in Gaza.

In addition to signing an angry letter to the president, six Jewish members of Congress from the president's party lashed out at a news conference, labeling the Gaza meeting a "sham" and a "kangaroo court."

Relations with Jordan had hit a particular strident chord this week, sparked by the latest impasse on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

The Jordanian soldier opened fire one day after the publication of a pointed letter King Hussein sent to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, questioning his role as a partner in peace.

Hussein phoned the premier Thursday from his plane on a flight back to Jordan from Spain, where he cut short a trip because of the shooting.

In condemning the attack, Netanyahu said, "This incident emphasizes what I have been saying for some time, that the greatest threat to the peace process is the mentality of certain elements who sanctify the way of violence and who are prepared to act violently.

"There can be political differences, but there must be total, absolute and vigorous opposition to any sign of this type or any other type of violence."

American Jewish groups also were quick to condemn the attack and at least one group went as far as to link Hussein's statements with the violence that ensued.

"The letter released by King Hussein and the vile action" stand "in chilling juxtaposition," Phil Baum, the executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said in a statement.

"When leaders allow themselves to characterize difficult negotiations as political acts of war, no one can claim surprise at subsequent acts of violence on the part of their followers."

Arafat, who had recently refused to take telephone calls from Netanyahu, also called the Israeli leader to express his condolences after the shooting.

Arafat said Thursday that he was willing to meet with Netanyahu — but only if the two sides held a real dialogue, referring to recent Palestinian charges that Israel was unilaterally imposing its decisions on the Palestinians.

Palestinian Education Minister Hanan Ashrawi suggested Thursday that Israel had itself to blame for creating the atmosphere in which the shooting took place.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns described her remark as "outrageous."

"It's that type of rhetoric that is overblown and unwarranted, and will not build the road to peace," Burns said.

The victims themselves were seventh- and eighth- grade students on a field trip from the Fierst School in Beit Shemesh, outside of Jerusalem. The school is one of 34 run in Israel by AMIT, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that supports Israeli schoolchildren.

Six of the victims were from Beit Shemesh: Natalie Alkalai, Keren Cohen, Nirit Cohen, Yeala Meiri, Adi Malca, and Sherri Geddayev. The seventh girl was Sivan Fatihi of Moshav Tslafon.

The spot where the shooting took place is located some six miles south of the Sea of Galilee, on a tract of farmland where the Jordan and Yarmuk Rivers meet.

Israel leased the area from Jordan under the two countries' peace treaty, and entry to the site is through a Jordanian checkpoint. It has become a popular site for tourists.

The students were listening to a guide when the soldier began firing at them at close range.

"As we were walking, we suddenly heard a burst of fire. We looked up and saw the soldier firing from an observation point. He then came down and began charging us," Rosa Himi, one of the teachers accompanying the students, told Israel Radio.

"It was a nightmare."

Raz Hess, an Israeli who gives guided tours of the site, was with another group about 60 feet away from the students when the shooting began.

"They had their backs to him, and I saw him run toward them and begin shooting," he told Israel Radio. "He stood before one girl and shot her in the head."

Another teacher, Yaffa Shukrun, told Israel Radio that she told the students to lie flat on the ground. "I felt bullets spray across my back, I couldn't move, could see anything, all of the most difficult thoughts running through my head," Shukrun said.

Security officials said the soldier managed to empty a magazine, some 20 bullets, before being overpowered by other Jordanian soldiers.

Four of the wounded students were evacuated to a hospital in Israel. Five of the dead and two seriously wounded victims were taken to a hospital in Jordan.

An Israeli helicopter and medical team were later sent to Jordan to transport the bodies and the wounded back to Israel.

Shukrun, a teacher who accompanied the wounded in Jordan, said, "When I was in Jordan, I was very tense about being there –but the medical treatment was fine. The doctors focused primarily on dealing with the situation."

Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan said the attack marked a black day in his nation's history and promised a comprehensive investigation in coordination with Israeli police.

Hassan also said he doubted the soldier was motivated by recent regional tensions.

"Our army is not politicized," Hassan said. "We will have a conclusive investigation of the matter."

The gunman was identified as a driver who had been working in the area since the beginning of the year. Reports said he took another soldier's weapon to fire.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai urged all sides to act with restraint and to continue pursuing peace.

"What is necessary from all leaders is to make every effort to prevent violence, and prevent a process in which someone or some people find themselves interpreting the matter in such a way as to take a weapon and carry out such acts of slaughter," he said.

Israel's Inner Security Cabinet convened Thursday night, but most of the discussion focused on the pending decision to build on Har Homa rather than the massacre in Jordan.

Despite the assessment of security officials at the meeting that construction at the site could spark violence, Netanyahu reportedly planned to seek his government's backing for the building to begin soon.