Thousands of Gazans gave an ecstatic welcome to Mohammed Assaf on Tuesday as the 23-year-old Palestinian singer returned home after winning this year’s Arab Idol talent competition.
Young and old waved Palestinian flags and held up posters of Assaf, raising banners congratulating him on his win in Beirut on Saturday, when he beat off stiff competition from fellow singers from across the Arab world.
Recordings of Assaf’s songs blasted out from loudspeakers while crowds thronged his motorcade as it made its way up the Gaza Strip after crossing the Rafah border from Egypt.
Huge crowds also 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.
Assaf left Gaza for an audition in Egypt in October last year, and made it through each stage of the competition, eventually staying in Beirut alongside other contestants for the final rounds.
His victory in the final, screened live on television across the Arab world, marked the first success for a Palestinian entrant.
“Mohammed Assaf is the Arab Idol,” declared the presenter of the show which is modelled on the British hit show Pop Idol, as confetti rained down on the cheering audience.
The handsome, tuxedo-clad singer immediately dedicated his win to “the Palestinian people, who have been suffering for more than 60 years from (Israeli) occupation”.
He won a professional recording contract and a car, a 2013 Chevrolet Camaro.
Assaf’s competition included singers from as far west as Morocco and Tunisia, from Gulf countries Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, from war-torn Syria and from Iraqi Kurdistan.
The victory of the young man from the besieged Gaza Strip united tens of thousands of Palestinians in celebration, temporarily overshadowing the political crisis at home.
The resignation of West Bank prime minister Rami Hamdallah and internal political wrangling was largely overshadowed by Assaf’s victory.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas crowned the young singer national goodwill ambassador, and the UN Palestinian refugee agency named him its youth ambassador.
Hamas disapproves of shows such as Arab Idol, which are considered to be un-Islamic, but the movement has not clamped down on support for the contest.