Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian singer who escaped from Gaza to become a superstar, has called for ‘an end to the violence’ in his blighted homeland and for ‘the international community to intervene.’
Assaf, who first earned worldwide fame by winning Arab Idol two years ago, is currently in London promoting a new biopic about his life.
The 26-year-old has used the trip to appear in public with his TV presenter fiancée, Lina Qishawi, 23, for the first time.
But rather than focusing on The Idol, the film inspired by Assaf’s career, the couple said their thoughts were with those suffering across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
‘The violence is horrendous, and we are both calling for it to stop,’ said Assaf. ‘We are urging the international community, including the United Nations (UN), to step in and take concrete action.
‘Words of condemnation are not enough. Illegal Israeli occupation is the primary reason for the regular fighting’, said the singer, who is also a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Palestine.
Assaf said he deplored all forms of violence, and particularly fatalities, but described the horrific spiral as the ‘result of oppressive policies and a blanket ban on all Palestinian dissent.’
‘People have reached breaking point because they’re subjugated. This is because of the apartheid regime, the continuous expansion of illegal settlements, the outlawed demolition of Palestinian homes and farms and the daily humiliation at checkpoints.
‘It’s also because of the constant military offensives, persecutions and lack of hope, and the routine extra-judicial killings and unauthorised detentions, including that of children,’ he said.
‘Palestinians are taking action because of these terrible injustices. This is not new, but things are getting worse, and increased repression, including collective punishment, only leads to more trouble. All Palestinians want is to be a free, independent people, and to live with dignity.’
Referring to the more immediate cause of the latest cycle of violence, Assaf suggested that ‘the Arab League should take charge of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, over Jordan. This will prevent future provocations and illegal incursions by Jewish extremists who want to pray there while being offered protection by Israeli forces.’
‘Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and Palestinians won’t allow any attempt to turn it into a Jewish Temple and Judaise Jerusalem’, said Assaf.
Discussing the political relevance of The Idol, Assaf said: ‘I’m very proud of the film, not just because it’s my life story, but because it’s about the Palestinian struggle, especially of those blockaded within Gaza’.
Speaking for the first time about their relationship, Lina said the couple’s engagement party was held last month in Ramallah, near Beit El, the place where much of the latest violence is happening.
She said she was ‘particularly distressed by the number of children being killed,’ and told of her horror at the story of Rahaf Hassan, a three-year-old girl who died alongside her pregnant mother, Noor, during an Israeli airstrike on Gaza last Sunday.
Calling Rahaf a ‘little angel’, Lina said she had been moved to tears by an online video that showed the child’s corpse being hugged and kissed by her inconsolable father.
Lina added that ‘footage of rubble and devastation in Gaza’ shown in The Idol ‘summed up the ongoing situation.’
There is one scene that evokes the haunting images of the four boys playing football on a beach last summer before being blown to pieces by Israeli ordnance.
More than 2200 Palestinians were killed and 10,600 wounded in the Gaza strip during Israeli bombardments last year. In turn, Israel lost 66 soldiers and five civilians to rocket and commando raids.
Knife and gun attacks are currently breaking out across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories almost daily, with serious casualties on both sides.
Since the beginning of the month at least 32 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire and nearly 2000 have been wounded in Israeli attacks.
Meanwhile eight Israelis died in assaults, including one in which a victim was run over by a car and then hacked to death by a man using an axe. Numerous others have been injured in stabbing and firearm incidents.
Filmed in the Gaza Strip, Jenin and other areas of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in addition to Jordan, The Idol charts Assaf’s life from his boyhood in a refugee camp to triumph in the singing reality show in 2013.
A number of big names are supporting Assaf in London, including actor Hugh Grant, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative politician, and the musician and producer Brian Eno.
Mr Eno said: ‘I’m very interested in the Palestinian issue and that’s why I got involved in this. I also like Arabic music a lot and I heard about Mohammed winning Arab Idol. He has an incredible voice and a powerful story that made me cry when I watched the film… It’s a good thing that the lights were off… men are not supposed to cry!
‘There wasn’t a single horror scene in the film and yet the director managed to convey the violence and suffering experienced by Palestinians who live under military occupation.
‘The young boy who plays Mohammed is a beautiful child. All the children in the film are. The way Palestinian children are growing up with brutal colonialism as their reference is very brave.’
The Idol is directed by twice Oscar-nominated Hany Abu-Assad, who said at his film’s Premiere: ‘All the actors in the film are from Gaza’.
Abu-Assad explained that ‘because of the travel restrictions imposed by Israel, we could not do the casting there, so we auditioned them via Skype.
‘The Israeli authorities only allowed us two days of filming in Gaza and it took months and months to get permissions to move the cast to and shoot in the West Bank too.
‘I thought that the boy playing Mohammed and the girl acting as his sister were better than professional actors, especially as it’s the first time they’ve played in a film. I hope they will inspire other Palestinian children to take up roles in movies, especially children from Gaza.’
Baroness Warsi, who quit her position in UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s Cabinet last year over its policy on Gaza, praised Assaf at a dinner on Monday night.
She said: ‘We’re here to celebrate Mohammed Assaf’s fight against all odds. Mohammed was not prepared to say no to living his dream and to his desire to give hope to an oppressed people’.
Expressing his own view on The Idol, Hugh Grant said: ‘Yes, I was there at the Premiere and watched the film. I’m a cynical old bastard but I genuinely loved it. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen for years, and I’m not even lying… It was real, touching… all that.
‘It’s a brilliant casting. The young Assaf and his sister in the film are very endearing. It was an excellent introduction for me to Palestinian cinema.’
Elaborating on the power of Abu-Assad’s film, Grant said: ‘I think we’ve become immune to terrible images in the news and sometimes it needs art to really affect people and convey reality better.
‘The film has a very clever light touch politically and it makes the message more effective in putting the Palestinian story on the global agenda.
‘I don’t think art can bring a solution to what seem to be intractable problems, but it opens your eyes and enlightens you.’