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Arab Idol winner calls for unity

Palestinians have a new voice: a 23-year-old wedding singer from a Gaza refugee camp touted as a rare symbol of national unity after he won the Arab world's top TV contest.

But Mohammed Assaf's homecoming on Tuesday highlighted the harsh reality of political divisions between the Islamic militants who rule Gaza and the Palestinian president in the West Bank.

Even as thousands thronged the streets in a frenzied welcome for the newly crowned winner of Arab Idol, Hamas supporters stayed away, unable to reconcile the young singer's triumph in the world of glitzy entertainment with their religious beliefs.

In contrast, Hamas' main rival, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, portrayed the singer's victory as an achievement for all Palestinians, apparently hoping Assaf's popularity would rub off on him.

The singer with the silky voice and warm smile had put Palestinian pride centre stage throughout the competition, bringing many in the audience to their feet when he struck up his signature anthem to Palestinian nationalism, Raise the Kaffiyeh.

Street celebrations and fireworks erupted across the West Bank and Gaza after he was named the winner Saturday at a TV studio in Beirut.

On Tuesday, Assaf revisited the theme of unity. "My message is national unity and ending the split," he told a news conference at the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. "We are one people, and we want our freedom."

Still, the thousands of fans waiting for him in scorching heat waved Palestinian flags and the yellow banners of Abbas' Fatah movement, not the green flags of Hamas.

Assaf, who grew up in Gaza's Khan Younis refugee camp, almost did not get to compete. He had to plead with Hamas to let him leave Gaza, he said, 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.

As Assaf advanced in the competition, excitement and national pride built in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories where the Palestinians hope to one day establish a state. Rooting for the talented performer allowed Palestinians to feel as one people, forgetting at least for a while their political and geographic split.

Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, leaving him with only the West Bank, where he heads a self-rule government in part of the territory. Since then, both sides have tightened their hold on their respective areas, on opposite sides of Israel, and reconciliation seems more distant than ever.

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