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26 Jun 2013 00:00
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Arab Idol Winner in Triumphant Return to Gaza

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Thousands of Gazans gave an ecstatic welcome to Abdelmalek Sellal on Tuesday as the 23-year-old Palestinian singer returned home after winning this year's Arab Idol talent competition.

Young and old waved Palestinian flags and held up posters of Mohammed Assaf, raising banners congratulating him on his win in Beirut on Saturday, when he beat off stiff competition from fellow singers from across the Arab world.

Recordings of Assaf's songs blasted out from loudspeakers as crowds thronged his motorcade as it made its way up the Gaza Strip after crossing the Rafah border from Egypt.

Huge crowds also gathered outside his home in the southern city of Khan Yunis.

The meteoric rise of Gaza's Assaf to snatch the top prize in the pan-Arab singing contest sparked an unprecedented outpouring of joy across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, bringing rare unity to the divided territories.

"We are making him an official welcome," said Gaza's culture ministry director Fakri Judeh, at the head of a Hamas government delegation to receive him. "

Assaf is a Palestinian citizen who has made an outstanding achievement... and we support him," he said.

"We hope he will use his God-given talent to serve the Palestinian cause."

Assaf bent over and kissed the ground as he crossed the border, an AFP correspondent reported, before holding a news conference alongside officials from Gaza's ruling Islamist Hamas movement.

Assaf left Gaza for an audition in Egypt in October last year, and made it through each stage of the competition, eventually staying in Beirut alongside other contestants for the final rounds.

His victory in the finals, held in the Lebanese capital and screened live on television across the Arab world, marked the first success for a Palestinian entrant.

"Mohammed Assaf is the Arab Idol," declared on Saturday the presenter of the show which is modeled on the British hit show Pop Idol, as confetti rained down on the cheering audience.

The victory of the young man from the besieged Gaza Strip united tens of thousands of Palestinians in celebration, temporarily overshadowing the political crisis at home. 

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas crowned the young singer national goodwill ambassador, and the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency named him its youth ambassador. Hamas disapproves of shows such as Arab Idol, which are considered to be un-Islamic, but the movement has not clamped down on support for the contest.
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