KHAN YOUNIS REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip (AP) — Palestinians have a new voice: a 23-year-old wedding singer from a Gaza refugee camp touted as a rare symbol of national unity after he won the Arab world's top TV contest.
But Mohammed Assaf's homecoming Tuesday highlighted the harsh reality of political divisions between the Islamic militants who rule Gaza and the Palestinian president in the West Bank.
Even as thousands thronged the streets in a frenzied welcome for the newly crowned winner of "Arab Idol," Hamas supporters stayed away, unable to reconcile the young crooner's triumph in the world of glitzy entertainment with their religious beliefs.
In contrast, Hamas' main rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, portrayed the singer's victory as an achievement for all Palestinians, apparently hoping Assaf's popularity would rub off on him.
The singer with the silky voice and warm smile had put Palestinian pride center stage throughout the competition, bringing many in the audience to their feet when he struck up his signature anthem to Palestinian nationalism, "Raise the Kaffiyeh."
Street celebrations and fireworks erupted across the West Bank and Gaza after he was named the winner Saturday at a TV studio in Beirut.
On Tuesday, Assaf revisited the theme of unity.
"My message is national unity and ending the split," he told a news conference at the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. "We are one people, and we want our freedom."
Still, the thousands of fans waiting for him in scorching heat waved Palestinian flags and the yellow banners of Abbas' Fatah movement, not the green flags of Hamas.
Assaf, who grew up in Gaza's Khan Younis refugee camp, almost didn't get to compete. He had to plead with Hamas to let him leave Gaza, he said, then bribe Egyptian border guards to let him enter the country en route to Lebanon. A fellow Palestinian gave up his slot during the audition phase because he believed Assaf had a better chance at winning.
As Assaf advanced in the competition, excitement and national pride built in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories where the Palestinians hope to one day establish a state. Rooting for the talented performer allowed Palestinians to feel as one people, forgetting at least for a while their political and geographic split.
Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, leaving him with only the West Bank, where he heads a self-rule government in part of the territory. Since then, both sides have tightened their hold on their respective areas, on opposite sides of Israel, and reconciliation seems more distant than ever.
Assaf's victory had put the Islamic militants in a bind. Devout Muslims who support Hamas' fundamentalist brand of Islam oppose shows like "Arab Idol" as forbidden by their religion. And since seizing control of Gaza, Hamas has imposed stricter religious rules, including greater gender separation in public, on the already conservative territory.
However, Hamas is sensitive to public opinion and usually relents when it encounters widespread resistance. Earlier this year, for example, Hamas police shaved the heads of young men who sported gel-styled spiky hairstyles considered contrary to rules of modesty, but halted the campaign after an outcry.
In the case of Assaf, Hamas didn't want to be seen as going against the prevailing mood, but also did not want to endorse a frivolous form of entertainment, analysts said.
"Hamas knows there is huge energy behind (Assaf), and it will lose the street if it stands against him," said Mhaimar Abu Sada, a Gaza analyst.
In a compromise, the Hamas government dispatched a senior official in its Culture Ministry to be among those receiving the singer at the border crossing.
Assaf "proved that the Palestinian people are distinguished in all areas, despite the (Israeli) occupation and despite the aggression against Palestine," said the official, Fikri Judah.
However, Assaf will not perform in Gaza, instead traveling to the West Bank for a concert in Ramallah, the seat of Abbas' government, on July 4. He will also visit Dubai. He received a one-year contract from Platinum Records, the Dubai-based label owned by MBC, which broadcast the Arab Idol competition.
Abbas repeatedly injected himself into the "Arab Idol" craze since last month, when it became apparent Assaf had a shot at winning. He urged Palestinians to vote for the singer, praised him after his victory and named him an honorary ambassador.
On Tuesday, the pro-Abbas Palestine TV network broadcast the singer's chaotic homecoming live. When his black Mercedes pulled into Gaza, the crowd converged on the car, with enthusiastic fans climbing on top of it before being pulled back by Palestinian police.
"I love them, but things were not organized," Assaf said of his fans, speaking to Palestine TV. "There was a danger to my life."
Assaf said he could not go home because of the huge crowd in the Khan Younis refugee camp, where fans set up huge loudspeakers and young men danced to Assaf's music in the street.
Inside their home, Assaf's family tried to stay clear of politics. "We are not a political family," said his sister, Nisreen, 30. "We are middle of the road. We are against extremes."
In the camp, Assaf's poster was hanging near those of gunmen killed in battles with Israel — the traditional role models.
Now there's another path to glory, said Mohammed Nael, a friend of Assaf. "All the kids in the camp have become fans of music and dance," he said. "All the gifted singers ... are now looking for a similar chance."
Associated Press writer Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.