GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A 23-year-old wedding singer from a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip has given Palestinians a rare sense of pride and national unity by reaching the finale of "Arab Idol," a regional TV singing contest watched by millions of people.
Across Gaza, an impoverished territory ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas, people gathered around TV screens at home, in coffee shops and in seaside cafes Friday evening to watch Mohammed Assaf and two other finalists from Egypt and Syria perform for the next to last time.
When Assaf struck up his signature anthem to Palestinian nationalism, "Raise the keffiyeh," fireworks erupted in Gaza and spectators jumped to their feet for the traditional "dabka" dance.
The singer with the bright smile and warm voice is putting Palestine on the map, said Ahmed Abu Ali, a 38-year-old teacher watching at a Gaza City hotel. "This young man ... is expressing the feelings of all of us, he is expressing our suffering, our pain, but also our love of life," Abu Ali said.
The winner is to be announced Saturday evening, after viewers from across the region vote for their favorite. The show, produced by the Saudi-owned MBC Group, is broadcast from the Lebanese capital Beirut. Now in its second season, this year's competition began in March with 27 contestants.
Assaf, who was born to Palestinian parents in Libya and grew up in Gaza's Khan Younis refugee camp, almost didn't get to compete. He says he had to plead with Hamas to let him leave Gaza, 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.
With Assaf advancing in the competition since March, excitement and national pride have been building in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories where the Palestinians one day hope to establish a state.
Rooting for the talented performer has allowed Palestinians to feel as one people, forgetting at least briefly their political and geographic split.
Gaza is cut off from the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which lie on the other side of Israel. Israeli travel restrictions over the past decade have deepened that separation. Since the Hamas takeover in 2007, Gaza has become more isolated, amid growing animosity between the Islamic militants and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who administers part of the West Bank.
Politicians have tried to latch on to Assaf's popularity.
The Western-backed Abbas called Assaf last month to congratulate him on his strong showing and later, in a statement, urged people across the region to vote for the singer.
Hamas at first seemed critical of the "Arab Idol" fever sweeping Gaza, with a spokesman saying last month that the name and idea of the show are blasphemous.
However, Hamas is known for not going against public opinion. In a sign of a shift, a Hamas lawmaker in Gaza, Yehiyeh Moussa, this week praised Assaf as the "ambassador for Palestinian art."
Some religious leaders, though, remained harshly critical. Mohammed Salim, delivering a sermon Friday at Islam's third holiest shrine, the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, said Palestinians lost sight of their struggle for independence by getting preoccupied with the show.
"Voting for songs and immorality, evil and sin is not only forbidden, it is a crime against the cause of our people," he said.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.