'Arab Idol' Winner Returns to Palestine to Cheers and Unease

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KHAN YUNIS REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip -- The winner of "Arab Idol," a one-time wedding singer who made it big, returned home here on Tuesday to both excitement and unease.

The popular pan-Arab talent contest put Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules in Gaza, in a bind because the group's strictly religious followers considered the show inherently un-Islamic. Hamas has been stepping up its public virtues campaign recently, trying to bar women from smoking water pipes and unwed couples from walking along the beach. "Arab Idol" was deemed inappropriate because of its romantic songs and unveiled female singers and presenters in ornate, Western-style dresses.

Despite all of this, the show was a runaway success.

Mohammed Assaf singing "Siret El Hob," a classic love song from the 1950s.

Thousands of Palestinians crowded outside the Rafah terminal along Gaza's border with Egypt and lined the roads for hours on Tuesday waiting to greet the winner, Mohammed Assaf, who gained the title over the weekend after a fierce competition in Beirut with two other finalists, Ahmed Jamal from Egypt and Farah Yousef from Syria.

When the results were announced on Saturday night, Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem erupted in celebration.

For Palestinians, divided into separate territories ruled by rival parties, the win provided a rare moment of solidarity. Capitalizing on his newfound clout, Mr. Assaf, 23, the son of refugees and a resident of the crowded Khan Yunis refugee camp in southern Gaza, seized the opportunity to appeal for change.

"My message is one of national unity, ending the split and sweeping away the occupation," he said, referring to the schism between Hamas and the secularist Fatah Party that holds sway in the West Bank, as well as to Israel, which ultimately controls movement in the area.

Mr. Assaf arrived in a gray suit draped in a black-and-white checkered kaffiyeh, a trademark of Yasir Arafat, the longtime Palestinian leader and founder of Fatah, and a symbol of the Palestinian cause.

But even amid the rejoicing, Palestinian differences were on display. Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in 2006 and seized control of the coastal enclave after factional fighting a year later, sent a notably low-level welcoming committee from the Hamas-run Ministry of Culture to the Rafah crossing on Tuesday.

President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, was quick to embrace Mr. Assaf and name him a Palestinian good-will ambassador with diplomatic standing.

Mr. Assaf was also appointed the first regional youth ambassador for United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

On the show, Mr. Assaf presented a mix of pop music about love with patriotic ballads. His winning number, "Raise the Kaffiyeh," was often played for Mr. Arafat and gave a spiritual boost to Fatah, only adding to Hamas's chagrin.

Mohammed Assaf singing "Raise the Kaffiyeh."

Hamas authorities prevented fans from installing a screen in Gaza's main square to show the broadcast live from Beirut. Instead, Gazans watched the finals in their homes or at cafes. Al-Aqsa TV, the Hamas television station in Gaza, ignored the entire competition.

At the same time, Hamas has been careful not to push too strongly against the popular tide.

One Hamas lawmaker from Khan Yunis, Yehia Moussa, wished Mr. Assaf success on Facebook, prompting a wave of criticism online from other Hamas supporters.

"For ideological reasons, Hamas considers this kind of art as being against Islam and religious culture," said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Gaza's Al-Azhar University. But, he said, "the low-ranking delegation sent to receive Assaf was meant to avoid reproach by possible critics."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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