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Hussein joins Israelis' mourning

Kneeling beside the bereaved families of seven schoolgirls shot dead on Thursday by one of his soldiers, King Hussein of Jordan touched this town Sunday with a gesture of condolence that was at once personal and grand.

Under leaden skies and heavy rains that deepened the gloom of his visit, the king made the grim rounds from one grief-stricken home to the next, shaking the hands of relatives, embracing and kissing some, and offering words of sympathy in Arabic and English.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompanied Hussein throughout his visit and appeared touched by the monarch's words of comfort. The girls were killed Thursday during a school outing to an Israeli-Jordanian border post known as the "Island of Peace."

In one house after the other, the king, wearing a red-checked Arab head scarf, knelt next to grieving families who sat on the floor in keeping with the Jewish custom of mourning.

At the home here of Shimon and Alia Malka, a deaf couple whose slain 13-year-old daughter, Adi, had helped them communicate with others, the king's words were translated into sign language.

"I feel that I've lost a child," the king told the bereaved father. "And I feel that if there is anything left in life, it will be spent to ensure that all the children enjoy the kind of peace and security that we never had in our times.

"I hope that you will consider me a brother and a member of the family," he said, "and I pray for God to give us all the strength to accept his will."

Some relatives responded warmly to the king's words.

In Zelafon, a nearby farming village of Yemenite and Moroccan Jews, Yisrael Petihi, whose 13-year-old daughter, Sivan, was among the slain girls, recalled that he had visited Jordan with his wife.

"Both sides should work hard to make peace," he said. "The peace with Jordan should be the best one."

Ruhama Cohen, who lost her 13-year-old daughter, Keren, had been reluctant to receive the king, but after his visit she said it had helped her cope with the loss.

"He gave us a good feeling and strengthened us," she said.

Her husband, Shimon, sat on a mattress under a picture of Keren and recalled how the king had knelt next to him on a rug. "I saw tears in his eyes; he nearly wept," he said. "He asked if he could be of help, but we told him that he could never bring back our pearl."

On the streets of Beit Shemesh, a working-class town known for its rightist political tendencies, the king's extraordinary act of conciliation seemed to strike a deep emotional chord.

Rachel Callen, 24, a store manager, said she had wept as she watched television images of the king paying condolence calls nearby. "It gave us a feeling that he cares about us," she said.

Mali Vaknin, a secretary, said: "I was very moved, even to tears. This is such a noble man. A special person. When he knelt before those people, you could see the sadness in his eyes. He is simply human, a human being."

Osnat Atias, 22, who pushed a baby carriage, said: "I admire him, because no other king would come like that to express his sorrow. It's exceptional, and it shows that he really cares. You see that he wants peace."

The widespread admiration here for the king's visit seemed in many people's minds to be separate from the political strains with Jordan caused by the Israeli government's decision to build a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Several people said the work there should go ahead, despite the objections of the Palestinians and King Hussein.

"We have our differences on this issue," said David Cohen, 39, who works in a local cement factory. "We shouldn't give in."

Indeed, Netanyahu said later at a news conference. "There is no change in our decision. Friends can agree and, at times, disagree. . . . We have made the decision."

But in the end, the king's visit was seen here as an act of simple compassion that transcended political differences.

"He was very human, very warm," said Nurit Petihi, the mother of 13-year-old Sivan. "He held my hand very, very tight."