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RAFAH, Palestinian Territories (AFP) – Thousands of Gaza residents on Tuesday gathered at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, eagerly awaiting the arrival home of a 23-year-old Palestinian who won this year's prestigious Arab Idol talent show.
Young and old alike 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.
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, unifying an often divided public.
Assaf left Gaza via the Rafah crossing for an audition in Egypt in October last year, and made it through each stage, eventually staying in Beirut alongside other contestants for the final rounds.
Assaf's victory in the finals, held in the Lebanese capital and screened live on television across the Arab world, marked the first such success for a Palestinian entertainer.
"Mohammed Assaf is the Arab Idol!" declared on Saturday the presenter of the show which is modelled on the British hit show Pop Idol, as confetti rained down on the cheering audience.
The handsome, tuxedo-clad singer immediately dedicated his win to "the Palestinian people, who have been suffering for more than 60 years from (the Israeli) occupation".
He won a professional recording contract and a car, a 2013 Chevrolet Camaro.
Assaf's competition included singers from as far west as Morocco and Tunisia, from Gulf countries Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and notably war-torn Syria and even Iraqi Kurdistan.
The victory of the young man from Khan Yunis in the besieged Gaza Strip united tens of thousands of Palestinians in celebration, temporarily overshadowing the political crisis at home.
The resignation of West Bank prime minister Rami Hamdallah and internal political wrangling was largely overshadowed by Assaf's victory, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas crowning him a national goodwill ambassador, and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees named him their UNRWA Youth Ambassador.