updated 8/22/2004 8:12:39 PM ET 2004-08-23T00:12:39

Worn down by four years of bloody conflict with Israel, Palestinians found a welcome diversion Sunday: watching Ammar Hassan, one of their own, compete for the title of best singer in the Arab world.

Huge outdoor TV screens sprang up in cities and towns around the West Bank in the hours before the show. The streets of Hassan’s home town of Salfit, in the center of the West Bank, emptied of its 12,000 residents. Hassan’s parents watched at home while 2,000 others gathered to watch in a park.

Likewise, millions across the Arab world tuned in to the final round of “Superstar 2,” a competition broadcast on the Lebanese TV satellite channel Al-Mustaqbal that is only one among a worldwide plethora of similar contests. The winner is to be announced Aug. 29.

For Palestinians, this is more than just a TV show. It’s a matter of national pride for a people that has yet to establish a state. Hassan, 26, reached the final round by singing songs of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation of the lands they claim.

Sing-along
In his family home in Salfit, father Hassan Dakrouq sang along when his son appeared on screen singing “Any Tear of Sadness,” a sentimental number made popular by Egyptian performer Abdel Khalim Hafez. His mother, Itidal, cried as she gazed at the screen.

In the nearby park, spectators waving pictures of their hero chanted, “Ammar, Ammar, superstar.” A similar gathering in Ramallah was called off because of complaints it was inappropriate while Palestinians in Israeli prisons are on a hunger strike demanding better conditions.

The consensus is that a vote for Hassan is a vote for the Palestinian cause — and that by itself would make Hassan a popular favorite. But Hassan also is a legitimate performer. He has a degree in music from A-Najah University in Nablus and has appeared in upscale restaurants around the West Bank city.

In a previous stage of the competition, the slim, sharp-featured singer plucked many heartstrings with his rendition of “Al Quds,” or “Jerusalem,” a classical Arabic song. Jerusalem is at the heart of the Palestinian struggle, aiming for a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the holy city as its capital.

Some Palestinians see Hassan as a resistance fighter using a different weapon.

'A cause that I respect'
“He is cute, handsome and great looking. He reflects the image of Palestinian youth,” said Rawia Isa, 19, from Gaza City. “Palestinians are fighting the occupation using all means, and culture and music are one of our fighting tools.”

The political overtones are not lost on viewers in other countries. In Beirut, Lebanon, translator Amal Helou, 58, said she would vote for Hassan because “he has a nice voice, good presence and he (represents) a cause that I respect.”

However, support is not unanimous. Hamas, a violent Palestinian movement that adheres to a strict form of Islam, released an angry statement.

“Our people are in need of heroes, resistance fighters and contributors to building the country and are not in need of singers, corruption mongers and advocates of immorality,” the statement said.

“Superstar 2” began with 82 contestants 13 weeks ago. The field was narrowed to 17 semifinalists until Hassan and Libyan singer Eyman Al-Atar were chosen as the final two in Sunday night’s faceoff.

The winner will be determined during the next week, as viewers call in their votes by telephone messaging or over the Internet.

It is not a scientific or democratic poll. People can vote as often as they like over the next week, and the Palestinian cellular phone company, Jawwal, is doing its part for the hometown entry.

“To encourage Ammar, we gave a 20 percent discount for all Jawwal users,” company official Fayez Husseini said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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