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Gaza singer's Arab Idol win gives Palestinians a voice

June 23, 2013 5:48 P.M. (Updated: Sept. 1, 2013 4:22 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (AFP) -- "Congratulations, Assaf! You've made Gaza and Palestine lift their heads up high," crowed 14-year-old Diana Shams as a young Gazan singer won the popular Arab Idol talent show, sparking rapturous celebrations across Palestine.

"This is one of the best moments of our lives," she beamed after watching 23-year-old Mohammed Assaf crowned victor on giant screens at a beach-front restaurant in Gaza City called The White House.

"We voted in droves for Assaf and now we're seeing the fruit of it," she grinned. "Assaf deserves to be an international artist."

The sudden leap to stardom for a refugee from southern Gaza triggered a wave of unrestrained joy among a people more often known for their suffering and troubles.

The announcement late on Saturday of Assaf's historic win over finalists from Syria and Egypt saw tens of thousands of Palestinians pouring onto the streets where giant video screens were set up, while cars sounded a fanfare on their horns.

"The world needs to know that we are for peace and we love life, like everyone else, not war and death," said Imad al-Sawirki, who came with his family to watch the final at a Gaza City hotel.

"Thank Assaf, who has united our people behind him," his wife Amani added.

In the city's Tel el-Hawa neighborhood Ibtissam Abu Seif watched the show at home with her husband and children "because all the hotels and restaurants were fully booked."

Even Hamas policemen on traffic duty were swept up in the festive atmosphere.

"We are all children of the same country," one said without giving his name.

"The vote for Assaf is a kind of battle won by our people," he added. "There are many forms of resistance."

Festivities continued into the small hours of Sunday in both Gaza and the West Bank.

In downtown Ramallah, thousands of people partied noisily in the city's main squares.

Naama Ibrahim, who was visiting from the United States with her husband and four children, told AFP she had "never experienced such joy."

"It's like a spontaneous protest across the country," she said. "It is a picture of unity drawn by the artist Mohammed Assaf.

In Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, celebrations turned sour as young Palestinians clashed with Israeli police. Several people were arrested.

In northern Lebanon, Palestinian refugees in the Beddawi camp fired gunshots into the air and took to the streets, honking their car horns to celebrate Assaf's win.

Born to Palestinian parents in Misrata, Libya, Assaf grew up in the teeming Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza.

The coastal strip, one of the world's poorest and most densely-populated areas, has been under a tight Israeli military blockade since 2006.

For his final act on Saturday, Assaf sang "Raise the Keffiyeh" a Palestinian nationalist song which refers to the traditional chequered scarf, with his version blasted almost on a loop by radio stations and car stereos throughout the night.

Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers have so far shown little enthusiasm for Assaf representing his people on such an un-Islamic talent show, although Hamas MP Yahya Mousa praised the Gaza singer for his victory and welcomed Assaf's thanks to God following the announcement.

"He is an ambassador of a just cause," Mousa wrote on his Facebook page.

President Mahmoud Abbas phoned him personally during the television contest and later crowned him the national goodwill ambassador.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, also congratulated him, naming him their Youth Ambassador.

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