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Jordan King Grieves With Families of Slain Israelis

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jordan’s King Hussein flew to Israel on Sunday for a series of emotional visits with the families of seven schoolgirls slain by a rogue Jordanian soldier, making a dramatic gesture of solidarity despite growing tensions over Israeli construction plans in disputed East Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompanied Hussein throughout his visit and appeared touched by the Jordanian monarch’s words of comfort for the grieving families in this town about 10 miles west of Jerusalem. The girls were killed Thursday during a school outing to an Israeli-Jordanian border post known as the “Island of Peace.” The soldier is in custody.

At the same time, however, Netanyahu said he will not be deterred from starting work this week on a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, a housing project sharply criticized by Hussein.

“There is no change in our decision,” the Israeli leader told reporters at a Jerusalem news conference with the king. “Friends can agree and, at times, disagree. . . . We have made the decision.”

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The king’s visit to Jerusalem was his first since 1995, when he gave an emotional eulogy at the funeral of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, his friend and peace partner. Sunday’s visit was widely viewed here as both a deeply personal humanitarian gesture and an effort to underline Jordan’s role as a regional peacemaker.

Early this year, the king helped seal the long-delayed Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the Israeli troop redeployment in the West Bank city of Hebron in an eleventh-hour mediation effort.

“This visit is unprecedented, and it’s the kind of humane and emotional gesture we would expect from a good neighbor and friend,” said David Bar-Illan, a Netanyahu spokesman. “It’s a milestone in our relationship with the Arab world.”

But the visit, much of which was broadcast live on Israeli television, drew criticism from Palestinians. Many viewed it as inappropriate, in both the king’s outpouring of sympathy for Israeli victims and his stopover in Jerusalem.

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“How can Hussein conduct such activities with Israel in Jerusalem while the city is still disputed?” Ali Jirbawi, a political science professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank, asked in a typical reaction. “Another thing is this excessive sadness and his use of terms such as ‘national shame.’ This was too much.”

Just after noon Sunday, the Jordanian king, piloting his own plane, touched down at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, where he was met by Netanyahu and Foreign Minister David Levy. They drove immediately to the home of slain schoolgirl Sivan Fatichi, 13, in the farming community of Moshav Tsafalon near Beit Shemesh.

Offered bread and salt in a traditional sign of welcome, the king knelt before the family, who were sitting on the floor according to Jewish custom during mourning.

“Your loss is my loss, my personal loss,” he told them, his eyes brimming, as he grasped the hand of Yisrael Fatichi, the girl’s father.

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Fatichi, in turn, urged Hussein and Netanyahu to continue working for peace, noting that “it is nearer from here to Amman,” the Jordanian capital, than to the northern Israeli city of Haifa.

At the home of Adi Malka, 12, the king communicated with the slain girl’s parents through a sign-language interpreter. The parents, who are deaf, have said they lost their main link to the hearing world when they lost their daughter.

“I want my daughter back,” said Adi’s weeping mother, who fainted at one point during the visit. “We have peace, but I don’t have my daughter anymore.”

Hussein replied that he will devote the rest of his life to strengthening the peace process in order to ensure that all children enjoy peace and security.

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Miri Meiri, the mother of 13-year-old Yaala, another victim, said the king asked her for forgiveness on behalf of his people. “He said he was very ashamed,” Meiri said in an interview, adding that he had tears in his eyes as he spoke to her.

Meiri said she asked Hussein and Netanyahu to build a memorial on the site of the killing at Bakoura, Jordan, “so the blood of these seven girls would not be in vain.”

Later, during his news conference with the Israeli leader, Hussein said there are plans for a memorial, apparently including a recreational facility for children, at the site.

Hussein also used his time in Israel to try to mediate the latest crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations and to defuse tensions caused by a harshly worded letter he sent to Netanyahu last week. In the letter, the king criticized Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and accused Netanyahu of seeking to humiliate his “so-called Palestinian peace partners.”

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Netanyahu said he and Hussein held a three-way telephone conversation with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and that negotiations were underway Sunday on other issues, including plans for an airport in the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip. Later Sunday, Israel Radio quoted Levy, the Israeli foreign minister, saying that Netanyahu and Arafat were expected to meet this week.

But Netanyahu refused during the news conference to back down on the controversial project in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, saying that construction will begin this week on a hill known to Arabs as Jabal Abu Ghneim and to Israelis as Har Homa.

Israeli officials said the preparations for building could be delayed a day or two by predicted thunderstorms or other logistic problems but have hinted that the reasons also may involve a desire to avoid embarrassing Hussein so soon after his Jerusalem visit.


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