'I didn't think they'd make a difference but when I heard, I cried'


REMEMBERING THE DEAD:YOUNGSTERS GATHERED round a stone column at a square dedicated, during the best of times, by president Yasser Arafat to UN agencies that have sheltered, fed and educated the Palestinian people for six decades.

Lads and lasses in jeans and brightly-coloured shirts chanting “Freedom, freedom,” hefted a plywood coffin painted with the flags of the countries of activists on the cruise ship assaulted by Israeli commandos early on Monday morning – Turkish, Lebanese, Algerian.

Yesterday was the third day after the slaying of the flotilla activists, a time when mourners traditionally gather to show respect for the dead. The procession made for the fishing port where they stood outside the vast tent erected to greet the blockade-busting ships.

Inside the long narrow tent, festooned with bright swatches of cloth, flags and posters in Arabic, English and Turkish, hundreds of men – politicians, teachers, sheikhs and farmers, Fatah, Hamas and independents – had gathered to grieve. “Welcome Freedom Flotilla,” read the banner over the entrance.

But the flotilla did not come. Every Gazan feels its loss. Sami Aby Salem, a journalist, observed: “I was not enthusiastic about the boats. I did not think they would make a difference. But when I heard the news, I cried.” While the mourners in the tent listened to speeches, religious readings and music, the youths carried the coffin out onto a rocky spit of land and launched it into the restless silver sea. The box soon sank, but a boy dived in and brought it to the surface, heavy with water. Fishermen on a fast boat lifted it out, let the water drain away and put it back. It bobbed and took in water but did not it sink.

Amjed Shawa, co-ordinator for Palestinian non-governmental organisations, remarked that the tragedy has both moved people deeply and given them hope.

“Egypt has opened the Rafah crossing, Jordan is taking in the wounded, Kuwait has called for withdrawal of the Arab peace plan. These are small but significant actions. We need words translated into actions, pressure on Israel to lift the siege. We are waiting for the Rachel Corrie,” the Irish-registered ship due next week with more aid, more solidarity activists and more media.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri observed: “What happened to the flotilla was very painful and, at the same time, very important. It revealed to the whole world the crime of the siege of Gaza. They [the Israelis] killed internationals in international waters. Palestinians are killed because they launch rockets [at Israel] but the internationals were killed even though they did not fire rockets . . . This incident will finally end the siege. If the siege does not end, other convoys of ships will continue. The occupation has two choices: kill the activists or allow the ships to come to Gaza.”