‘Dreams of independence:’ Palestinian star envisions Mideast peace

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Mohammed Assaf, the 23-year-old Palestinian who won the hugely popular Arab Idol, wants to use his place in the limelight to call for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, British daily The Guardian reported on Saturday.

Assaf’s strong voice and his ability to sing different styles of music from across the Arab world attracted an audience of up to 100 million for the show’s final in June.

He now hopes to use that popularity to bring real change to his people.

"I am confident that I will see a free Palestine in my lifetime," he said in comments published in The Guardian.

"I sing about popular themes but they center on the hopes of my own people – dreams of independence for the West Bank, for Jerusalem and for Gaza. We've been under Israeli occupation for decades."

Assaf, who grew up in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, cites the ousting of dictators such as Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt as inspiration for the kind of political change by mass participation he wants in Palestine. He embodies the generation of young Arabs who, empowered by new technology used every tool available to them during the uprisings in 2011 to bring their struggle to global attention.

The singer’s weapon of choice is his music and celebrity. He believes that international negotiators have lost touch with the reality of life on the ground in the occupied territories.

"There are many ways to make a difference in life, but my way is as an artist," said Assaf, a graduate of Palestine University who has just become a U.N. youth ambassador.

"I've always wanted to make my voice heard around the world, to sing about the occupation, about the security walls between communities, and about refugees. My first ambition is a cultural revolution through art. Palestinians don't want war – they are tired of fighting."

Assaf’s specific peace demands include a return to Palestine's 1967 borders, as well as guaranteed security from attack, freedom of movement, an end to illegal Israeli settlements and the return of prisoners and refugees.

"The subject of peace is massively complicated," said Assaf.

"The Palestinians want independence and freedom, just like everyone in the world. Thousands of us are professionals – teachers, doctors and lawyers. We all want our dignity and rights."

He expressed concern at the division between authorities in Palestine.

"Unity is the key – Hamas and Fatah should come to an agreement," said Assaf. "It's insane that we effectively have two governments at the same time as being colonized by Israel. It's hugely frustrating for me, and for all Palestinians."

Assaf’s prominence and political significance since his Arab Idol win is clear. Last week he posed for photographs with Barcelona footballers, including Lionel Messi, in Bethlehem, and met with President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas.

He has also, with the help of Abbas, gained Israeli permission to move with his family out of Gaza to the less volatile West Bank.

This high-profile move attracted attention to the harsh restrictions which govern life for the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza.

"These are the kind of issues I want to highlight," he said.

Assaf wants to use his voice not only for his passionate singing, but to promote justice and a mass movement for change in the Middle East’s most protracted conflict. It is clear that he understands the duties, as well as opportunities, which come with his spot in the limelight.

In a concert at a new stadium near Hebron in the West Bank he told thousands of ecstatic fans, “I have a great responsibility to my people.”

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