RAFAH, Gaza Strip — When Palestinian Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf arrived at Egypt’s crossing with Gaza Tuesday, a crush of thousands of adoring fans was waiting there to greet him.
The 23-year-old refugee was named Arab Idol Saturday night in Beirut, snuffing out the competition with his boyish good looks and stirring renditions of classical Arabic and Palestinian nationalist songs.
Frenzied admirers at Gaza’s Rafah border swarmed Assaf’s convoy. At the doorstep of his family home in the Khan Younis refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip, thousands celebrated the new star’s homecoming with music, dancing, and fireworks.
“We will not leave until he comes home,” said Musallam, one of Assaf’s neighbors, outside the singer’s modest gray house. “I am very proud that he is my neighbor.”
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Assaf is a rare source of pride and happiness for Gazans living under both Israeli blockade and Hamas rule, and having suffered decades of war. He lifted spirits here with songs of Palestine, some of which he sang in a distinctly Gazan accent and were broadcast to millions of viewers across the Arab world.
Elsewhere in the Palestinian territories, and even in the Arab towns of Israel, residents took to the streets to celebrate his victory.
Locals here say Assaf reunited the Palestinians, divided politically and geographically, with his nationalist anthems.
One song, “Ali Keffiyeh,” or “Raise Your Keffiyeh,” particularly stirred Palestinian sentiments — and was sung by Assaf in the talent show's final performance. Keffiyeh is a checkered scarf worn as a headdress, most famously by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
“Raise the flag in Ramallah and Mountains of Fire,” Assaf sings. Mountains of Fire is a nickname for the West Bank city of Nablus. “Your proud head band [keffiyeh] is a symbol of grit and determination.”
Palestinians have lived under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, though Israeli troops and settlers withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
(In the above video, Assaf sings "Ali Keffiyeh" in his final performance in front of the judges).
"Assaf is the symbol of unity, his songs united us and brought the name of Palestine high in the sky," Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri said while he waited to escort Assaf from the Rafah crossing. Later, al-Masri hosted Assaf for dinner at a luxury hotel.
When Assaf spoke at the crossing, he appealed to Hamas and its rival faction, Fatah, to end the now 5-year-old political division that has helped isolate impoverished Gaza from the West Bank.
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From Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank, Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas encouraged Palestinians on several occasions to vote for Assaf, later naming him a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA).
But throughout his participation in the program, Hamas refused to support Assaf — with some Hamas officials and government-linked sheikhs calling Arab Idol against the rules of Islam.
But when the crowds thronged for Assaf in Gaza, where Hamas rules, the Islamist movement moved to give the singer an official welcome.
“Assaf is the son of Gaza and he is a source of pride for every Palestinian,” Fekri Jouda, an official in the Hamas-run ministry of culture, said. “We are sure that his victory is important to every Palestinian and we hope that he will sing for and about the suffering of his homeland.”
Assaf was awarded a one-year contract with Platinum Records, a Dubai-based record label, as well as a 2013 Chevrolet Camaro.
In a reminder of the circumstances under which he lives, it is unlikely Assaf will be able to drive his new car. Israel still bans the entry of vehicles with eight-cylinder engines.