Within a few days of my interviewing Mohammed Assaf before his first concert in London earlier this month, the Israeli air force was bombing close to the refugee camp on the Gaza Strip where the Arab Idol winner was brought up.
Multimillion-dollar warplanes rained fire on Khan Younis, in the south of the blighted piece of land which has been permanently under Israel’s control since the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967.
“It’s what all of us have become used to,” said Assaf, who at just 24 has seen more conflict in his lifetime than most of us could ever imagine. “The Palestinian people are kept trapped, and then they are attacked constantly. It is a hugely unjust situation, and one which should not be allowed to carry on.”
Such words are not the kind you would expect from a brilliantly successful music star who has just released his first album. Known as “The Voice of Gaza”, Assaf attracted a viewing audience of 120 million for his final performance on Arab Idol.
He is now performing dozens of sell-out concerts all over the world, and his album has gone to the top of the charts around the United Arab Emirates and Middle East region. It was voted album of the year for 2014 on iTunes. Thousands of British fans queued for hours to see him at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, and while in Britain, Assaf also picked up an MTV award for Best Middle East Act this year.
But what is made very clear by the relaxed, smiling Assaf is his absolute commitment to the ordinary people he grew up with. In this sense he is typical of the socially aware, principled youngsters who hold out so much hope for the future of their country. Speaking to him not only makes you optimistic about the possibility of a just settlement for Palestine, but for the entire Middle East and North Africa region.
Assaf particularly wanted to visit London after British politicians voted overwhelmingly in October to recognise Palestine as an independent state, albeit only, for the moment, in principle.
“It shows that the world is changing, and that people are not prepared to accept the situation as it is. These type of developments in the international community are crucial,” said Assaf.
“I have to admit, I feel immensely proud to be in London. The symbolic vote was won conclusively, highlighting the strength of feeling on the issue. There were terrifying images coming out of Gaza almost every day last summer – thousands of Palestinians were killed, maimed and made homeless. This had a huge effect on people, especially when they could see that the vast majority of victims were innocent civilians – ordinary people who just wanted a chance to lead a good life.”
Assaf knew all about the cynical role Britain played in the crude division of the Middle East, which directly led to Palestinians being kicked out of their homeland so as to make space for Israel in 1948. The Nakba, or the catastrophe, saw Gaza turning into a prison camp – a place where one of the most heavily armed military forces in the world stands guard constantly, and where even the most basic services are denied.
Assaf himself was born in Libya, moving to Gaza with his family when he was four. He worked extremely hard – earning a university degree in communications, and finding work as a wedding singer, while also considering a job as a civil servant. Instead, he took a huge risk travelling out of Gaza to Egypt to audition for Arab Idol, spending two days stuck with security guards at the border. He had to sneak into the 2013 contest, after arriving too late for the deadline for entries, and another Palestinian generously sacrificed his place for Assaf’s.
Assaf is part of an increasingly aspirational generation that is no longer prepared to accept the status quo: a state of affairs that sees youth unemployment in Palestine currently standing at more than 50 per cent, even though half of those jobless hold university degrees.
Those who have known nothing but subjugation to Israel, and the status of the only colonised people in the world, are crying out for change. “Freedom is imperative – it’s the year 2014,” said Assaf. “Freedom is our fundamental right. We want to join the rest of humanity.”
The facts are certainly deeply disturbing. Beyond besieged Gaza, the movement of Palestinians is restricted across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Land is seized to build illegal settlements, so that around 80 per cent of historic Palestine is now in Israeli hands. Settler violence, supported by the Israeli military, goes unchecked.
Meanwhile, war crime allegations against Israel mount. Over the summer, nearly 2,200 people, including 521 children were killed in Gaza. A report by Amnesty International pointed to atrocities carried out with “a callous indifference to the carnage caused”. A spokesman for Israel, which lost five of its own civilians and 66 soldiers in the conflict, said it was responding to “terrorist rocket fire”.
Assaf is convinced the momentum started by outrage at the last all-out Gaza war can be kept up. He believes the tide is turning, with European countries recognising the Palestinian state. After the horror of all those murders in Gaza, there is the potential for Palestine to be officially recognised and it may also join the International Criminal Court. There is also an imminent UN Security Council vote demanding the end of Israeli occupation by 2017.
Assaf understands the global diplomatic issues – he was particularly concerned that the “ongoing cycle of violence” was spreading to Jerusalem, calling for intervention by the international community.
But, crucially, he is also fully aware of his increasingly influential position, and the power he has to touch people’s lives. His final performance on Arab Idol was Raise Your Keffiyeh, a nationalist anthem referring to the Palestinians’ traditional scarf – the kind their late leader Yasser Arafat turned into an iconic symbol of the Palestinian struggle. Assaf displays the Palestinian flag at every opportunity, but is not solely interested in appealing to natural supporters.
“My music is not confined to any particular group, and nor is my message about Palestine solely for Arabs,” said Assaf.
“I want everybody to listen. My victory showed that you can achieve anything you want if you are really determined enough. Situations can change at any time, and they can change very quickly.”
Nabila Ramdani is a French- Algerian journalist and broadcaster who specialises in Islamic affairs and the Arab world
On Twitter @NabilaRamdani