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Arab Idol will not liberate Palestine

Muhammad Assaf, a Palestinian singer from a Gaza refugee camp won the Arab Idol reality TV show.

I was in Ramallah on the night of his victory, and I too celebrated enthusiastically. I too felt as if the divided Palestinian national body, spread around Gaza, the West Bank and the 1948 territories (not to mention the diaspora) were united for one beautiful night.

The euphoria was contagious. People danced and sang in the streets, and celebrated from atop horn-honking cars. It did make one wonder what the celebrations of a liberated Palestine will be like — how much more.


Palestinians, all too often starved of victories, are understandably joyous at such a win.

But some commentators in the press have gone over the top on its significance. To take them literally, one would think Palestine was liberated already, with the Israeli occupation about to be swept away by the power of music and hope alone.

The Daily Beast’s “Open Zion” section even said Assaf was “the Palestinian Gandhi the world has been looking for” and that an Arab idol “officially resurrected” Pan-Arabism.

Even putting aside the fact that “the world” has no right to make demands for a “Palestinian Gandhi,” the statement was ludicrous. A CNN reporter said Assaf’s voice could make Palestinians “finally feel they have a voice.”

It is unfair to Assaf himself to make such grandiose claims, and set such high expectations.

The guy won a singing competition, and will almost certainly now have a very successful career. Good for him, I am happy.

But a victory in a singing competition will not remove a single Israeli occupation checkpoint. Arab Idol will not release one prisoner, suffering in Israel’s torture dungeons. Neither will it bring equality for millions of Palestinians living under Israel’s system of apartheid.

The liberation of Palestine will only be won after a long struggle for rights: the end of the occupation, equality and the return of the refugees.

It might not be as glamorous as Arab Idol’s high-budget gloss, but one element of this struggle is the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

I was in Ramallah for most of June, and so also happened to be present for another significant event: the Palestinian BDS National Committee’s national conference.

Delegates and attendees from all around Palestine debated strategy and tactics in the BDS campaign, celebrated victories and critiqued failures. Palestinians from Gaza, as well as BDS activists from the wider Arab world, participated over internet video connections.

The theme of 2013’s conference was local BDS campaigns within Palestine itself. The need for sensitivity to local context was stressed by several speakers. One example of this is the boycott of Israeli consumer goods: it is easy to do in London, but difficult to do in the West Bank and Gaza because of Israel’s flooding of the market.

Rather than a puritanical measure of personal righteousness, BDS is context-sensitive and adaptable. It is one strategy in the movement against Israeli occupation and apartheid, rather than a goal in and of itself.

Importantly, though, BDS is underpinned by absolute principles, the three demands that unite the entire Palestinian people: the end of Israeli occupation, full equality, and the right of return of the refugees.

The liberation of Palestine will only be brought about by patient long term struggle — the BDS campaign is one example of such work. It by no means the only strategy, and, like every other particular strategy (including armed resistance) should not be fetishised.

Palestinian singers are certainly part of the cultural element to this struggle. But there is a danger that cultural expressions can be depoliticised and neutered of political context.

Capitalism, and occupation entities like Israel, both have histories of success in appropriating and blunting cultural struggles for liberation, and I wish Muhammed Assaf all success in avoiding this pitfall.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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