San Franciscans hold vigil for Island of Peace deaths

Holding candles and singing songs, shocked San Franciscans stood along the bay last week, facing east to pay their respects to seven slain Israeli schoolgirls.

"I have this image that I can't get out of my head," Elizabeth Mizrahi, assistant director of the San Francisco American Jewish Committee, told the 28 mourners Thursday of last week. "It is of their tiny bodies as the hope floats up and out of them. Those children will never have the opportunity to enjoy the peace that their parents are working so hard to make.

"We are all standing here together to make sure that does not happen. To catch the hope as it leaves their bodies and carry it with us in our hearts," Mizrahi said.

The girls, slain just hours before the ceremony, were visiting the Island of Peace at the Israeli-Jordanian border on a school field trip March 13 when a Jordanian soldier sprayed the group with gunfire.

Besides the seven killed, the gunman wounded six others who were transported to Jordanian and Israeli hospitals.

At the vigil, Ernest Weiner, American Jewish Committee regional director, condemned the killings as "a tragedy that cannot be accepted or placed in the context of one deranged individual.

"This is a combination of Arab attitudes and the current political climate," Weiner said, referring to a recent letter sent by King Hussein of Jordan to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accusing the Israeli leader of jeopardizing the peace process with tough policies toward Palestinians.

The letter symbolized the cooling of quasi-friendly relations between the two countries that started when Netanyahu took office.

However, on Sunday, during what was called a journey of reconciliation, Hussein, accompanied by Netanyahu, visited parents of the slain girls to express his condolences. During a news conference in Beit Shemesh, the Jordanian leader said relations between the two countries were back on track.

Meanwhile, at the San Francisco vigil, mourners lit candles and formed an archway inside the concrete arch at One Market Plaza. Rabbi Doug Kahn of the San Francisco-based JCRC led them in song and prayer.

"In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we will remember them," Kahn said. The group linked arms, swaying to the traditional song "Hinei Ma Tov."

Israeli Consul General Nimrod Barkan likened the Island of Peace massacre to the 1985 Egyptian attack on Israeli tourists at the Red Sea resort of RasBurka.

"We know how verbal incitement leads to violence in the Arab world. We knew all along Israeli blood would be shed," Barkan said at the vigil. "This may not be the last time blood will be shed."

The afternoon vigil caught the attention of several homeless men who were resting in the breezy bay archway. Baldamar Mendoza was waiting there for a bus that would carry him on the final leg of his journey from Mexico to Washington state. He hadn't yet heard of the killings, but listened to the group's prayers.

"I heard them talking about my God," Mendoza said, tipping his hat in reverence.

On Monday, the group Palestinians and Jews for a Just Peace led 60 demonstrators in a noon rally outside the Israeli Consulate, protesting policies they say may have sparked the slayings.

"Build Peace, not settlements," the demonstrators chanted.

"We want to give the message to Clinton and Netanyahu that settlement and expansion in territories endangers the prospects of peace," said Julie Iny, a PJJP member, referring to Netanyahu's intent to build 6,500 Jewish housing units on Har Homa, a hill outside of East Jerusalem.

PJJP member Samir Asad added, "Jewish settlement of Jabal Abu-Ghneim [Har Homa] would isolate Jerusalem from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, making it impossible for our leaders to establish Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.

"It's important to recognize the impact of this settlement on the promotion of violence in the region."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.