After the peace agreement Orna Shimoni sought to establish a park on the Isle of Peace for the benefit of peace-seeking young Israelis and Jordanians. “The peace agreement permitted us to plant trees and sow grass for the park,” she said. “I got KKL-JNF involved in this dream of mine, and began very slowly to develop the site.”
But on March 13th, 1997, things changed. A Jordanian soldier stationed on the Isle of Peace turned his weapon against girls from the AMIT School in Beit Shemesh who were visiting the site. Orna Shimoni was on the island at the time, on a trip with her granddaughter’s class. The shots rang out just as she was crossing back into Israeli territory. “I was sure that someone had let off a volley of bullets by mistake,” she recalled. “But then there was another salvo and I heard dreadful screams. I realized that something terrible was happening on the island. I felt as if the sky had been torn apart and the world destroyed. I ran to the police post near the Isle of Peace. The policewoman on duty, who had been talking on the phone, had heard nothing. I snatched the receiver out of her hand and shouted: “There’s been a massacre. Send a helicopter immediately.” I went outside and heard more screaming. Then there was a dreadful silence.”
The bus carrying the girls made its way back to the parking lot. “I got on the bus,” said Orna. “I saw girls sprawled out and blood everywhere. I laid the girls down on the floor. All that time I was concerned about three girls who didn’t stop crying and calling out: ‘Bring me my sister… Where’s Yaala? Sivan’s still there…’ I realized that some of the girls were missing. I asked one of the teachers to count them, and it became clear that nine of them weren’t there.” An ambulance arrived, went into the Isle of Peace site and found the bodies of two of the girls. The rest were taken to hospital in Amman. Five of them were dead on arrival. Seven girls were murdered in that massacre.
“Two days later I went to the school in Beit Shemesh,” continued Orna. “The principal warned me not to come, because the girls were very upset and people in Beit Shemesh were stunned and angry about the peace agreement. But the girls remembered who had stroked their faces in their worst moments, and the psychologist in charge asked me to drop by the other classes at the school, too.”
The story of the hill
Orna told us: “When I got home, I decided that, instead of a park, I would create a memorial site for the seven murdered girls, and that I would try to perpetuate their memory with flowers and trees, much as I had planned for the park. I wanted the site to be ready in time for the shloshim ceremony. The following day I took part in a meeting with the chairman of the local council and the architect Professor Yigal Tzamir. I arrived with a computer printout containing a proposal for a general plan. My idea was to create a garden in which an area paved with red tuff would depict the trunk of a tree, symbolizing blood. The branches, delineated in black tuff, would symbolize bereavement, and there would be seven small hills, each bearing the name of a girl whose life had been cut off by the massacre.
“They told me that implementing a plan of this kind would require a vast sum of money, and that there was absolutely no way the work could be completed by the shloshim, as it would have to be coordinated with forty different bodies and organizations. But I wasn’t deterred.
“On the fourth day after the murder I started work. I took possession of an abandoned military post opposite the visitors’ center. Jordan Valley regional factories lent me a bulldozer, and with its help, after I’d got permission from the army, I buried the military position. Every day I phoned the next person in charge and asked for help. Everyone rallied round, without asking for payment. I was there every day from four o’clock in the morning until ten at night. By the thirtieth day the site was ready for the memorial ceremony, which didn’t take place in the end because of a problem that came up with the Jordanians.
“The following year, and every year since then, a major ceremony has been held at the site. KKL-JNF orchestrates the memorial ceremonies, in which schools and Beit Shemesh Municipality take part. Since then KKL-JNF has been involved at every stage.
“While I was working on the site, my son, Eyal, suggested I plant a grove of trees in memory of the girls. KKL-JNF enlisted in this undertaking, too, and planted a remarkable woodland that covers an area of about 170 dunam and includes seven species of eucalyptus trees, each of which is notable either for its foliage or for the marvelous color of its flowers. This grove has grown wonderfully, and the time has come to open it to the general public, with signs and recreation areas. KKL-JNF has also improved the lookout points at the site and the Dam Trail along the Yarmuk River.”