Thousands of Gaza residents on Tuesday welcomed at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt the Palestinian winner of this year’s Arab Idol talent show, Mohamed Assaf.
Young and old alike waved Palestinian flags and held up posters of Assaf, raising banners congratulating him on his win in Beirut on Saturday.
Described as a Palestinian hero by his fans, the 23-year-old Gazan brought together divided Palestinians in celebrations throughout the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Assaf’s victory in the finals marked the first such success for a Palestinian entertainer.
Recordings of his songs blasted out from loudspeakers while crowds thronged his motorcade, while many gathered outside his home in the southern city of Khan Yunis.
The meteoric rise of Gaza's Assaf to snatch the top prize in the pan-Arab singing contest sparked an unprecedented outpouring of joy across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, bringing rare unity to the divided territories.
“We are making him an official welcome,” said Gaza's culture ministry director Fakri Judeh, at the head of a Hamas government delegation to receive him.
“Assaf is a Palestinian citizen who has made an outstanding achievement... and we support him,” he said.
“We hope he will use his God-given talent to serve the Palestinian cause.”
Assaf bent over and kissed the ground as he crossed the border, an AFP correspondent reported, before holding a news conference alongside officials from Gaza's ruling Islamist Hamas movement.
“I thank you for your wonderful welcome and hope the celebrations won't feature gunfire,” Assaf said, alluding to the shots in the air that sometimes accompany celebrations in the Middle East.
“I hope with all my heart that the division can end, and my message to our Palestinian people is: unity, unity,” Assaf said, referring to internal divisions that have plagued Palestinian politics for years.
Hamas and Fatah, which dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, have been locked in a bitter rivalry which worsened when the Islamists seized the Gaza Strip in 2007.
Yellow Fatah flags, which are rarely seen in Gaza, could be seen flying among the crowds in Rafah ahead of Assaf's arrival.
Difficulties might face the talented hero’s fans who are eager to hear him sing live the besieged strip.
Assaf’s media campaign told Al Arabiya’s correspondent in Gaza that the government in Gaza has not allowed issuing permits for holding indoor or outdoor concerts.
The campaign also said that events to honor the winner were also not given permission, Al Arabiya’s reporter said.
Hamas disapproves of what it considers un-Islamic shows, such as Arab Idol.
The movement however has not officially clamped down on support for Arab Idol or Assaf, according to AFP.
He was named by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) a goodwill ambassador for peace immediately after he won the prize, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offered him a position of “diplomatic standing.”
Assaf, who came ahead of two other contestants, Syria’s Farah Yousef and Egypt’s Ahmed Jamal, dedicated his award to the “Palestinian people, who have been suffering for more than 60 years from [Israeli] occupation.”