BETHLEHEM – Celebrities around the world frequently change their place of residence for reasons much less compelling than meeting the needs of their career. But when the celebrity in question is leaving the Gaza Strip for the West Bank, unimagined complications emerge, as the newest Palestinian superstar is finding out.
Israel, which controls the movement of Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank, has just announced that it has given approval for Mohammed Assaf, winner of the Arab world’s franchise of the international “Idol” television phenomenon, and his family, to change their residency from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. Assaf, for whom travel will now play a large part in his life, he will no longer require the Palestinian Civil Administration to ask for Israel’s permission to the singer to leave Gaza.
As a part of the contract he signed upon winning Idol, Assaf’s actual residence will be in Dubai. But according to his aides in Ramallah, he will always want to come back to the Palestinian Territories.
“It's easier for him to travel within the West Bank having his residency changed especially when he is invited to perform in several concerts in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho, etc.”, they told The Media Line. Although Assaf can also return to Gaza, but to do so he will need to apply to Israel for a permit.
But many people here believe that he will never go back to the Gaza Strip. “Why would he go back? There is nothing for him to do there,” Omar Adel, a Ramallah-based computer engineer told The Media Line.
With Israel still in control of movement there, Gazans cannot travel to the West Bank unless they are given a permit by Israel. Those who wish to travel abroad can ask for a permit to go to the West Bank, then cross into Jordan over the Allenby Bridge and fly from Amman’s international airport. Or, as most people do, they can register their name with Gaza’s Hamas government and travel via Egypt after entering through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing point.
Upon his celebrated victory in the singing competition, Assaf was granted a diplomatic passport by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a United Nations passport when the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) named the singer a goodwill ambassador. However, the passports will not ease his movement if he wants to leave Gaza when the border is closed: a frequent situation due to Egyptian security concerns that affects even high-level officials.
Gazans are quick to realize that Assaf’s good fortune actually began at Rafah because had the crossing point been closed, he would not have made it to the competition which was televised from Beirut. In fact, Assaf almost missed the auditions In Egypt because he was stuck at the border for two days. A fan of the former wedding singer gave him his turn to audition, leading to the storybook ending and stardom.
A few days after his victory, thousands went to the border of the Gaza Strip to greet Assaf upon his return. Sources told The Media Line that the Hamas government in Gaza told Assaf that he will not be able to hold any concerts in his hometown.
However, the situation is Ramallah is quite the opposite. Assaf came to the West Bank for second time after his June victory to inaugurate the Solomon Pools music festival in Bethlehem; and more recently returned to the West Bank to appear in the welcoming celebration for the visiting Barcelona football team in Hebron.
In fact, residents of the West Bank have already had a number of opportunities to see and hear Assaf. His first visit included welcoming FIFA (soccer league) head Sepp Blatter; hosting free concerts in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jenin; and appearing in concert at hotels for those who paid around $125 per ticket to hear Assaf perform.
Meanwhile, fans back in Assaf’s native Gaza Strip wish they had the same opportunity to see him. The problem there is not just issues of free movement. It’s also the religious fundamentalism of the Hamas government. “Hamas prevents men and women from mingling, so we weren’t expecting that Assaf will have any parties here, but we had a dream that he would,” Rana Hamdan, a 27-year-old NGO worker living in Gaza told The Media Line.
Hamdan says she understands that Assaf was not going to stay in Gaza after he become an Arab celebrity, but many of her friends felt some of their national pride was taken away.
Others share the resentment. “The Palestinian Authority and several businessmen are using Assaf,” Ahmed Mustafa, a 30-year-old government employee from Gaza told The Media Line. “They are including him in every occasion. I don’t know how he will sing anything against the Palestinian Authority or supportive of resistance against Israel,” Mustafa said.
Palestinian writer Ramzi Sadeq Shahin published in article in the Gaza-based Donia Al Watan agency calling Assaf a “fake ambassador.” “Gaza supported Assaf, but now he forgot about it. He had always said that he’s the son of Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, but now he and his family moved to Ramallah as if Gaza has become a disgrace to him,” Shahin wrote in part.
Others have also been disappointed by the decision for more personal reasons. “I was frustrated when I heard that President Mahmoud Abbas gave Assaf a diplomatic passport and that Israel has agreed to his residency change,” Ruba Jahshan, 25, and officially from Gaza told The Media Line.
Jahshan is unable to leave the city of Bethlehem out of fear that officials at the Israeli checkpoints in between the West Bank cities will discover her situation and deport her to Gaza.
Jahshan posted a Facebook photo of her 1 ½-year old daughter, Tia, talking to her grandmother and aunts on Skype. Jashan, who says she hasn’t seen her sisters and brother for more than 5 years, wrote to President Abbas on his Facebook page saying, “I don’t want to be a diplomat. But can’t you, Mr. President, use these passports for people like us who can’t visit their families? It’s more humanitarian.” Jahshan says she’s not sure whether the president has heard her plea.
In 2007, Jasha came to Bethlehem using a temporary permit with the intent to marry the person she loved. “I didn’t know it would be this complicated,” Jahshan explained to The Media Line. Because Israel didn’t grant her a change of residency when the permit expired, she has lived in the West Bank illegally since then. Her parents are able to visit her each year at Easter and at Christmas when Israel provides permits for Christians to spend the holidays with their families in the West Bank.
Until matters come to a change as she waits for Israeli approval to change her residency to the West Bank, Jahshan says she will not encourage any Gazan to fall in love with a West Banker. Meanwhile, she is envious of Assaf’s newfound freedom of movement.
As a singer living amid this seemingly endless conflict, many ask Assaf to refrain from internecine politics and to be closer to the people. Emad Drimly, a journalist from the Gaza Strip and a fan of Assaf is one of them.
Drimly supports the singer’s choice of residency, but thinks he should stay clear of politics. “It’s a professional decision for Assaf to move to the West Bank. I am not against the decision as the situation Gaza prevents him from advancing his career forward. There is an attempt to create a division between the people of Gaza and the people of the West Bank, so I think Assaf should stay away from the political dispute,” Drimly added.
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