Palestinians Euphoric Over 'Arab Idol' Victory, Abbas Taps Winner as Goodwill Ambassador

Palestinian Authority warmly embraces Mohammed Assaf as tens of thousands celebrate his victory on the Pan-Arab contest; but even diplomatic privileges may not be enough to allow the young Gazan singer to travel to the West Bank, where fans are eager to see him perform.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

While tens of thousands of people in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and even Israeli cities were celebrating Mohammed Assaf’s win in the “Arab Idol” singing competition Saturday night, the Palestinian Authority warmly embraced him with what some Palestinians hope won’t turn into a chokehold.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced shortly after the win that Assaf, who hails from Gaza, had been appointed the PA’s goodwill ambassador to the Palestinian diaspora, the Ma’an news agency reported.

But UNRWA, the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency, got the jump on Abbas; on stage, immediately after his win, viewers were told that the agency had appointed him their youth ambassador in the region. UNRWA had apparently intended to name him youth ambassador several weeks ago, win or lose.

The competition’s closing event Saturday night in Beirut was attended by PA Culture Minister Anwar Abu Aisheh; Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon Ashraf Dabur and Palestinian tycoon Munib al-Masri, as well as Abbas’ son, businessman Yasser Abbas.

Assaf, 23, a resident of the Khan Yunis refugee camp, had been careful over the past few months not to identify politically with either side in the intra-Palestinian crisis – Hamas or Fatah. There were those who resented the fact that senior PA officials – Abbas and former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – had wished him well during the competition and called on people to vote for him. However, his lifestyle and work as a singer definitely affiliates Assaf with the popular-traditional-national culture identified with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Immediately after Assaf’s win slightly before midnight, cries of joy were heard from homes and restaurants, as well as from street corners where giant screens had been set up. Streets in Gaza and Ramallah that had been nearly empty until the results were announced filled as if by magic with convoys of cars cruising through the main roads with their blinkers on, honking and playing Assaf’s songs, while children and young men leaned out of the windows making victory signs and waving Palestinian flags and banners bearing Assaf’s picture. Within a short time the yellow flags of Fatah also appeared.

Restaurant owners distributed sweets to those in the cars, everyone was grinning from ear to ear, and on Facebook there were posts suggesting that Assaf should be the next president.

Gazans celebrate Mohammed Assaf's 'Arab Idol' win.
Crowd watches result of 'Arab Idol' in Ramallah, moments before Mohammed Assaf wins.
Thousands in Ramallah celebrate victory of Arab Idol contestant of Mohammed Assaf.
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Gazans celebrate Mohammed Assaf's 'Arab Idol' win.Credit: AP
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Crowd watches result of 'Arab Idol' in Ramallah, moments before Mohammed Assaf wins. Credit: Reuters
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Thousands in Ramallah celebrate victory of Arab Idol contestant of Mohammed Assaf.Credit: AFP

Future president or not, Assaf will be receiving full diplomatic privileges, Ma’an reported, citing the official PLO news agency Wafa. But even a Palestinian diplomatic passport doesn’t assure Assaf the right to enter the West Bank, where people are eager to hear him perform and see him up close. Israel does not allow free passage for Gazans to the West Bank, other than in exceptional humanitarian cases or in cases involving people close to senior PA officials.

Last week, however, the Palestinian Ministry for Civilian Affairs announced that Assaf has been granted permission by Israel’s Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria to enter the West Bank.  

Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf holds Palestinian flag after winning 'Arab Idol.'Credit: Reuters