KHAN YUNIS REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip – Controversy and celebration erupted when Palestinian Mohammed Assaf, winner of the Middle Eastern singing competition Arab Idol, returned home to the Khan Yunis Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. In order to perform in the competition, Assaf had to plead with the Islamically fundamental leadership and bribe border patrol officers in Egypt to have the opportunity to audition for the show, and his frequently patriotic performances inspired pride in many Palestinians but incited fear in others. Assaf’s rise from the refugee camp to the stage has come to symbolize the hope for liberation of the Palestinian people.
Hamas, the leading party of Gaza and East Jerusalem, deemed the television show inappropriate due to its support of Western dress, romantic songs, and unveiled female singers. This social fundamentalism, however, does not reflect the views of the Palestinian majority. Hamas often struggles to maintain control over its people and frequently exerts force to maintain its social standards. The party now has to contend with the influence of the secularist Fatah Party. Assaf’s brave and blatant deference to this party earned him great honor from his fellow Palestinians.
The 23-year old, having grown up in a refugee camp and witnessed the divides among his nation, took the spotlight and shined it back onto the people. “My message is one of national unity,” said Assaf at a news conference. “We are one people and we want our freedom.”
This powerful quote spoke out against the harsh social controls of Hamas, who had previously attempted to ignore the entire broadcast in the Gaza strip. However, where Hamas’s control could not reach, the Palestinian people gathered in the streets to project the television show on the side of buildings, sell food, and celebrate together. The victor’s poster is now hung among other Palestinian idols, mostly fighters killed in battle with Israel.
It is rare for an event to unite the politically and territorially divided region, but Assaf’s victory had people in all territories cheering. President Mahmoud Abbas, residing over the West Bank, named Assaf a Palestinian Good-Will Ambassador and the United Nations named him the First Regional Youth Ambassador for bravely utilizing his sudden spotlight to reach out to the violently divided Palestinian people.
Assaf’s victory now puts Hamas in a delicate position. Should Hamas outwardly oppose Assaf, they risk losing the support and docility of the enormous population that has rallied behind his message. However, if they allow support for him to continue in their regions, they may have to compromise their harsh social controls.
This example of a brave young person seeing beyond the harshly drawn social and political lines of his country marks a positive movement in the Middle East, as the generation that has grown up in conflict moves to end it.