KHAN YOUNIS REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip (AP) — Huge crowds gave a chaotic welcome Tuesday to the first Palestinian winner of the Arab Idol talent contest, thronging the territory's border crossing with Egypt and the home of the singer in a Gaza refugee camp.
Mohammed Assaf's victory transformed him into a symbol of Palestinian unity, but political divisions quickly surfaced as he returned to Gaza, ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas.
"My message is national unity and ending the split," Assaf told a news conference, referring to the rivalry between Hamas and Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
"I hope I have united the homeland through my songs," Assaf said at the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza.
Thousands of people waited for hours in scorching heat to catch a glimpse of Assaf. They pushed and shoved to get closer when a convoy of cars — one of them carrying the singer — drove from the Egyptian side into Gaza.
People pushed toward the black Mercedes carrying the singer, slowing the car's progress.
Thousands more surrounded Assaf's home in the Khan Younis refugee camp, where young men danced in the streets as loudspeakers blasted his music. Assaf did not stop in the refugee camp, and instead was driven to a hotel in Gaza City, apparently because of concerns that the crowds could not be controlled.
Hamas has ruled Gaza since seizing the territory from Abbas in 2007, leaving him with only parts of the West Bank.
Many devout Muslims, including Hamas members, believe singing contests like Arab Idol are forbidden by their religion.
Restrained by its religious beliefs, Hamas did not embrace the singer as a national hero. Even so, the militants largely avoided criticizing Assaf or the contest, apparently reluctant to go against popular opinion.
There were no green Hamas flags Tuesday among those waiting for Assaf at the Rafah border crossing and outside the singer's home. The Hamas TV channel, Al-Aqsa, did not broadcast the homecoming.
In a small gesture, an official from Gaza's Culture Ministry was among those meeting Assaf at the border crossing, but the minister himself was absent.
By contrast, Fatah showed a strong presence, and supporters raised the group's yellow flags. Palestine TV, loyal to Abbas, broadcast live for hours, filling airtime with interviews with relatives and neighbors.
Abbas praised Assaf after his win, naming him an honorary ambassador. Abbas said at the time that Assaf "conveyed the message of the Palestinian people to the Arab nation through his art."
Assaf's family rejected taking part in any factional disputes over the meaning of his victory. "We are not a political family," Assaf's sister, Nisreen, 30, said Tuesday. "We are middle of the road. We are against extremes."
She said that the family's neighbors broadly supported the competition and their native son.
Palestine TV said he would not perform in Gaza, but the MBC broadcasting company said he planned to stage concerts in the West Bank next month.
From there, he plans to move to Dubai to continue his music career. Assaf received a one-year contract from Platinum Records, the Dubai-based label owned by MBC, which broadcast the Arab Idol competition.
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed reporting.