Israel has banned Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf from entering the occupied Palestinian territories, namely the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority is based in Ramallah. Assaf won the “Arab Idol” singing contest in 2013.
According to Knesset Member Avi Dichter of the Likud Party — he is a former Minister of Internal Security and director of Shin Bet — the Israeli government decided to revoke Assaf’s permit which enables him to travel freely to the occupied West Bank. The Israelis have complete control over who enters or leaves the Palestinian territory. The pretext is that Assaf is alleged to incite people against Israel, including the encouragement of terrorist activity, praising Palestinian martyrs and calling for an armed struggle against the state.
Gaza-born Assaf acquired the permit from the Israeli occupation authorities after he was named as the Ambassador of Youth and Peace by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the same year that he won the contest. UNRWA provides essential services to millions of Palestinian refugees in the occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
The revocation of his permit comes after several months in which the Badin Centre for Middle East Studies has been digging deep into Assaf’s old video clips to expose his “incitement activities” in order to tarnish his image as a person who likes peace. The centre published a 51-second video from before he became popular performing “Alli Al-keffiyeh” (“Raise the keffiyeh”) at an UNRWA-run school in Gaza. It’s fairly obvious that the move against Assaf is intended to put pressure on UNRWA to strip him of the Youth Ambassador role. Or perhaps the song’s title is just too annoying for Israelis.
Assaf’s status and the permit he holds is a privilege which is denied to millions of other Palestinians. Since the 1994 Oslo Accords Israel has imposed a ban on Palestinians from Gaza entering the West Bank and Jerusalem without a permit that is particularly hard to get. This ban also applies to Palestinian West Bankers wishing to enter Gaza as well as the 20 per cent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinians and live in “1948 Palestine”.
READ: Knesset approves Israel deal with UAE, Netanyahu says deal has no secret clauses
The Palestinian singing star left Gaza seven years ago and now lives with his wife in the UAE. Dichter noted in his revocation letter that it might be possible to collaborate with Abu Dhabi to see how Assaf can be stopped from being involved in his “incitement activities”.
To this end, in a surprise move the singer’s version of “Alli Al-Keffiyeh” has already been removed from the Saudi-owned MCB’s “Arab Idol” YouTube channel after being viewed 91 million times. MBC is based in Dubai.
In response, Assaf tweeted: “My love and belonging to my country and my adherence to national constants and values is something that I am proud of.” He pointed out that the reported ban on him entering the occupied Palestinian territories, Jerusalem and Gaza Strip is simply part of the oppressive policies and curbing of freedom that are suffered by the Palestinian people, to whom he belongs heart and soul. “Nothing will deter me from loving my country and singing about it in all forums with all my heart.”
The decision to revoke Assaf’s travel permit was condemned by Palestinian Minister of Culture Atef Abu Seif, who described it as another episode in Israel’s war against Palestinian arts and culture. “This Israeli campaign and incitement against Palestinian arts and against one of the stars of Palestine who carry to the world the voice and story of our people suffering under the occupation will not succeed in undermining the eternal message of the Palestinian artists and their struggle,” he told Wafa News Agency.
Assaf has been urged on social media to leave the UAE and condemn the normalisation deal between Israel and Abu Dhabi. Many Palestinians have taken to social media expressing their support for him using the hashtag #WeAreAllMohammedAssaf
“It seems there is a global campaign to silence Palestinians, suppress their cause and erase them, including artists who are under pressure now to stop singing for Palestine,” one activist told me. “The removal of Assaf’s songs from YouTube was not the first shameful move by MBC, which tried to remove some content about the Palestinian Nakba from its platforms in recent years. Palestinians are here to stay, they exist and they are not going to vanish.”
Assaf has become a patriotic icon for motivating the younger generation of Palestinians to love their homeland. The lyric of “Alli Al-Keffiyeh” includes the following:
Raise your Keffiyeh, raise it and wave it
Sing the Ataba and Mijana and enjoy it
Shake your shoulders tenderly
Jafra, Ataba and Diheya
And let the sound of guns contribute and make it more entertaining…
The song describes a wedding where people are wearing the keffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian black and white scarf, and reciting traditional poetry while performing the Dabka dance. It is usually accompanied by shooting guns in the air as an expression of joy. It seems, though, that Israel is sparing nothing in its efforts to politicise everything Palestinian, even wedding and patriotic songs.
Palestinians are proud of their cultural heritage, traditions and patriotic songs, and maintain their identity as a deep-rooted nation struggling for liberation for more than seven decades. Assaf’s songs will be sung in every house, arena and street not only across Palestine but also around the region and, indeed, the world. Why? It’s simple: #WeAreAllMuhammedAssaf
READ: Bandar Bin Sultan blamed the Palestinians, not Israel’s brutal occupation
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.