An erstwhile island of peace

Driving along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway six years ago this week I suddenly noticed I was just about alone on that normally busy road. In Israel you learn that when things start to look a little different, it's best to quickly find out why. I flicked on the radio to hear that within minutes the highway was to be closed off to make way for the motorcade of Jordan's King Hussein, whose plane had just landed in Israel.

1997 was the height of burgeoning hopes, three years after the Israeli/Jordanian peace treaty had been signed. Everywhere there were postcards of a beaming President Clinton flanked by King Hussein and Prime Minister Rabin smilingly clasping hands.

But on that day, Hussein had arrived not for a mission of celebration, but for one of grief.

At the juncture of the Yarmuk and Jordan Rivers in the Galilee lies a small island. The 1994 peace accord declared it as belonging to Jordan, but Israelis were to have free access. Upon the land are the remnants of the old Cairo-Damascus railroad line, as well as a dam built during the British Mandate, considered an early example of cooperation between Arabs and Jews.

Following the peace treaty, thousands of Israelis traveled there; it became a meeting place as well between Israeli Arabs and their Jordanian relatives. A sign was put up calling it the "Island of Peace." Meeting Rabin there, Hussein said, "No place better illustrates the fact that we are at peace."

On March 13, 1997, a group of eighth-grade girls from the modest Israeli town of Bet Shemesh arrived on a field trip to view the wildflowers that gloriously color theGalilee in early spring - crimson poppies, pink cyclamens, red tulips, purple irises, yellow daisies. Suddenly, bullets rained down from the Jordanian checkpoint tower, fired by a deranged Jordanian soldier. Seven girls fell dead.

The murders were a terrible shock. Three days later, Hussein set out on his unprecedented journey of condolence to Israel.

After I heard the highway was to be closed, I turned off. In a cold grocery store in a farm village, I stood transfixed, watching a wall-mounted TV giving the world live coverage as Hussein paid condolence calls in obscure provincial towns.

A driving rain accompanied the king when he came to kneel on stone floors, embracing bereaved fathers, holding the hands of collapsing mothers. "Your loss is mine," he told them. "I will be honored if you consider me part of your family now."

Parents proffered photographs that had been meant for school yearbooks, photographs that overnight had become black-bordered memorials. In seven modest houses of mourning the king put on his reading glasses and studied the images, one by one. Hussein's was a stunning gesture. He later contributed $1 million to be distributed to the bereaved families.

After the murders of the girls, the place took on a stigma, and Israelis bitterly deserted the island. It is only this spring that they have started to return to the nature spot that has now become a memorial as well. Most of the news facing the Middle East this season is of disquiet and uncertainty. The impending war with Iraq is awakening fears of possible attacks by missiles or infiltration of unconventional weapons. The violence between Israelis and Palestinians drags ever onward in a lethal spiral of seemingly unstoppable momentum.

But on the eve of war, one subject is causing universal rejoicing. After years of drought, this winter has been one of abundant rain. In this semiarid region with limited water resources, the precipitation of 2003 is a blessing for all. Every weekend, tens of thousands of Israelis travel to the Galilee to gape at the swollen streams.

Nowhere offers a better view than the swirling river surrounding the erstwhile "Island of Peace." Last week, I, too, went to watch the muddy water racing over the rocks.

But amid the happiness, there is the somber reminder of the graves. Six years ago the murder of innocents was still extraordinary, and the king's response to it equally so. Now blood baths are almost the norm, and no Palestinian or Israeli leader would dream of repeating King Hussein's example.

Among the intense yellow of the daisies glorifying the island's hills, I walked on narrow paths bordered by barbed wire. The fence was plastered with ominous signs of an even deeper yellow: "Danger! Mines!"

I turned to ask an old timer who had planted the mines. "These are Arab mines," he said. "But across the border are Israeli ones," he continued. "That's the way it's always been: They have their mines and we have ours."

Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer and columnist living in Israel.

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