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Gaza Palestinians give hero's welcome to their 'Arab Idol'

Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf holds the Palestinian flag, as he stands on stage after being announced winner during the Season 2 finale
Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf holds the Palestinian flag, as he stands on stage after being announced winner during the Season 2 finale

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of joyous fans turned out on Tuesday to welcome "Arab Idol" Mohammed Assaf on his return to the Gaza Strip and the song contest winner appealed for harmony among divided Palestinians.

The fresh-faced 22-year-old from humble roots in a Gaza refugee camp has endeared millions of voting television viewers with his Palestinian patriotic anthems and folk songs.

Police from the Islamist Hamas movement that controls Gaza could barely hold back the crowds that waited for the grey-suited Assaf outside the gate of the territory's Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

His car drove through a sea of cheering Palestinians, some of whom climbed electricity poles and took to rooftops for a better glimpse of the young star, who was declared the winner of the popular pan-Arab competition in Beirut on Saturday.

"Thanks everyone, without you I would have never won," Assaf said at a news conference after his arrival.

He returned to a Palestinian enclave where political rifts run deep. Hamas, which won a 2006 parliamentary election, seized control of Gaza from forces loyal to Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party in 2007.

"I call for an end to division and I will continue to call for unity in all speeches I make," Assaf said.

Signaling its tacit endorsement of the singer, Hamas - which frowns on non-Islamic songs and the Western-style glitz of TV talent shows - sent officials from the Gaza-based Ministry of Culture to the border crossing to welcome him.

Fatah officials were also there, and many in the crowd waved the mainstream movement's yellow flags.

After his victory, Assaf was named by the United Nations as its first youth ambassador to Palestinian refugee camps in the territories and in neighboring countries. He is expected to visit the West Bank to perform.

"We won hope," said Abu Khalil, a 65-year-old Gaza resident. "I hope political leaders can learn something from Assaf - that love unites people, not hatred."

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Mark Heinrich)

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