Fans step up campaign for Gaza 'Arab Idol' star

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Palestinian fans and big business are rallying behind a 22-year-old singer from the Gaza Strip in a final push to vote him the next "Arab Idol" in a TV talent contest choosing a winner in Beirut on Saturday.

Mohammed Assaf is the first Palestinian to qualify for "Arab Idol", the Middle East's version of "American Idol", in which contestants perform for judges and voting viewers.

His potent mix of good looks and emotional lyrics about ancestral Palestinian lands have helped to turn the young man from Gaza's Khan Younis refugee camp into a star and symbol of unity for Palestinians plagued by deep internal divisions.

Voting in the pan-Arab competition is done through text messages. To encourage support for Assaf, one of three finalists, two Palestinian cellular telephone companies have cut their rates for ballots cast for him.

The Bank of Palestine is throwing money into the campaign, promising to match up to 350,000 texted votes - each one costs 1.50 shekels ($.40) - for Assaf. It has placed billboards with his picture at major intersections in Gaza and the West Bank.

"Vote and the Bank of Palestine votes with you," says a radio and television commercial broadcast in the Palestinian territories, where Assaf's songs blare constantly from vehicles.

President Mahmoud Abbas has spoken to Assaf by phone and instructed Palestinian embassies abroad to urge expatriates to vote for him, calling the singer "the pride of the Palestinian and Arab nation".

Abbas's main Palestinian rival, the Islamist group Hamas that rules Gaza, frowns on non-Islamic songs and the kind of Western-style glitz on full display in TV talent shows.

But Hamas has tacitly endorsed Assaf, who has performed with a traditional black-and-white Palestinian scarf around his shoulders, saying he is free to sing in the Gaza Strip and noting that he comes from a respected family.

Egyptian Ahmed Jamal and a Syrian woman, Farah Youssef, are also finalists in the contest broadcast by the Saudi-owned MBC Group.

To keep the votes for Assaf coming, the Palestinian cellular operator Jawwal is offering cash prizes of up to $10,000 for customers who text in the highest number of ballots.

Some cafes in the West Bank city of Ramallah are offering to text a vote for every cup of coffee that customers order.

"By voting for Assaf, we are voting for Palestine, for us," read a typical entry on his Facebook fan pages.

Huge celebrations are likely on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza if he wins.

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