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'Arab Idol' Crowns First Palestinian Winner

Ultimate underdog Mohammed Assaf, who snuck out of the Gaza Strip to attend the Cairo auditions, captures the hearts of the region.

Arab Idol Mohammed Assaf L

While still fighting for independence and global recognition, Palestinians had a big reason to celebrate Saturday when one of their own, 23-year-old Mohammed Assaf of the Khan Younis refugee camp, won the second season of Arab Idol.

The show, which airs live from Lebanon, is a pan-Middle Eastern edition of the American mothership, broadcast on the region’s MBC network. Assaf went up against Syrian Farah Youssef and Egyptian Ahmad Jamal, and feared he might be at a disadvantage, as his opponents were from well-established Arab countries whose residents could rally support for their representatives for the final vote. At the same time, the underdog cautiously was considered a favorite for the past several weeks, having gained global media attention surrounding his participation as the first Palestinian to make the top 10 in the high-rated TV show.

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Still, while his story of sneaking out of the Gaza Strip to make the Cairo auditions, which were taped last fall, has caught the attention of multiple news outlets around the world, Israeli media has been slower to feature it. However, following his win Saturday night, several leading Israeli news sites reported on the story, noting that his recognition has not gone unnoticed by Palestinian politicians, who campaigned for him with their own agenda of showcasing the modern, culturally minded makeup of the population.

Indeed, Palestinians rejoiced following the announcement of Assaf’s victory, as they have during the ongoing competition. And it's no wonder -- in a show of patriotic pride, Assaf has been wearing the traditional Palestinian "keffiyeh," a black and white scarf, on television while also expressing his political views in interviews where he has condemned the "Israeli occupation." Assaf dedicated his win to Palestinian prisoners and Muslim Shahids, regarded as "martyrs" who died for their faith.

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Minutes after his crowning, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a formal congratulatory statement, describing the feat as a source of triumph for the authority as a whole and a territory well on its way to become an independent nation. Abbas also immediately declared Assaf a goodwill ambassador and granted him a diplomatic passport, which surely will come in handy next time he needs to cross the border.

Watch a clip of one of Assaf's winning finale performances below: