Assaf exclusive: Mohammed talks about his journey from "hell on earth" Gaza refugee camp to superstardom

Published December 3rd, 2014 - 01:28 GMT

A singer who became the first Palestinian to win Arab Idol after witnessing 'hell on earth' at a Gaza refugee camp where he grew up has made an impassioned plea for Israel to stop killing innocent civilians.

Mohammed Assaf told MailOnline how he witnessed countless deaths at the hands of Israeli forces after moving to the Khan Younis refugee Camp in Gaza when he was just four.

Khan Younis has been the scene of some of the most brutal Israeli massacres. Most of those who end up there have had their homes reduced to rubble and Mr Assaf saw harrowing parallels over the summer when nearly 2,200 Gazans were killed, including 513 children.

Last year, Mr Assaf risked everything by travelling to Egypt to audition for the Middle East's version of Pop Idol which he went on to win. He has since gone on to perform dozens of sell-out concerts all over the world from America to Australia.

In an exclusive interview with MailOnline in London, Mr Assaf told how he often relives the horrors of his childhood after making several trips to Gaza this year to deliver aid in his role as UN Goodwill Ambassador for Palestine. 

He said: 'The overwhelming majority of the Palestinians killed were innocent civilians. It's harrowing to see this level of suffering among my people. 

'Thousands more were wounded and nearly half a million people were made homeless - and I know exactly how that feels.

'When bombs and bullets are pouring down on defenceless communities, and there is absolutely nowhere to run, then it is like absolute hell on earth.

'It is an unimaginably frightening situation and I went through it regularly during Israeli attacks while I was growing up. I saw the lives of families and friends destroyed in seconds.'

Concentrating on Israel's campaign in Gaza this summer, a new report by human rights group Amnesty International pointed to Israeli ‘war crimes’ carried out with ‘a callous indifference to the carnage caused’. 

Israel, which lost five of its own civilians and 66 soldiers in the conflict, claimed it was responding to 'terrorist rocket fire', according to government spokesmen. 

The 24-year-old is known as the 'Voice of Gaza' after winning the show to become a global superstar last year.

His final performance - in front of an audience of 100million - was a song called 'Raise Your Keffiyeh', a nationalist anthem referring to the Palestinians' traditional scarf.

The garment was famously worn by former leader Yasser Arafat and has become an iconic symbol of the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

Mr Assaf said he particularly wanted to visit London after the British parliament last month voted to recognise Palestine as an independent state. 

'It was a hugely important step and one which added to the great hope all Palestinians share,' he said before a concert in Westminster Central Hall, across the road from the House of Commons last Friday night.

'I have to admit, I feel immensely proud to be here. The symbolic vote was won by a landslide majority, showing that the will is here in Britain to allow us peace.

'Now there needs to be official recognition of the Palestinian state. This is particularly relevant for the UK, given its historical responsibility for starting the Arab-Israeli conflict in the first place.

'Britain has a huge role to play in forging peace for the Middle East – all of us are relying on its support.

It was Britain which, in 1917, pledged support for the creation of Israel, and when this happened in 1948 on Palestinian land, it led to a state of almost permanent war, displacing millions of Arabs.

'All Palestinians want is freedom', said Assaf. 'This is our fundamental right. It's about time we were allowed to join the rest of humanity.

'Israel has illegally grabbed almost eighty per cent of our land, and we are the only people in the 21st century to be colonised and to be forced to live under military occupation.'

This week, the British parliament will be debating the human rights situation for Palestinians in Gaza and Jerusalem.

Assaf said: 'The ongoing cycle of violence in Jerusalem is of particular concern. Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine and occupation has changed the city in an entirely negative way.

'The United Nations has a duty to intervene, to protect civilian lives in Jerusalem and the West Bank'. 

Assaf wants his career to set an example to everybody – including Israeli fans – who wish to unite for 'sudden change'. 

Massive celebrations broke out across Gaza and the West Bank when Mr Assaf won Arab Idol, as well as in many parts of Israel.  

'My music is not confined to any particular group of people,' said Assaf. 'My victory showed that anyone from anywhere can succeed if they are determined enough.'

'I pursue my art to send a message of hope. Art reaches the heart faster than bullets. I've heard too many bullets in my life, and, like so many others, want change.

'After everything I had been through – the wars, the oppression and apartheid, the suffering, the humiliation of day-to-day military occupation – I could not believe that I had won Arab Idol, and am still overwhelmed by what has happened since.'

Assaf still regularly returns to Gaza. His last visits there were during and since the recent carnage, delivering aid as UN Goodwill Ambassador for Palestine. 

He went to numerous hospitals, saying: 'It's harrowing to see this level of suffering among my people'.

A particularly poignant visit was to the Shujaiya district of Gaza where, on July 20, 100 people were killed by a combined Israeli bombardment by F-16 jets, tanks and mortars.

'But we are a very resilient people and we stick together,' Assaf said. 

Assaf was also in London for a private charity event organised by UNRWA, the relief agency, to raise money for the reconstruction of Gaza. 

A newly digitised archive photograph of a Palestinian family fleeing the city of Khan Younis in 1948 sold for £3,000. 

'I have hugely positive plans for my home,' Assaf said. 'They include setting up an Arts Centre for young musicians, writers and actors, which would be paid for by Palestinian Americans'.

However, Assaf warned that it would take years for blockaded Gaza to get over the latest aerial, naval and ground bombardment by the Israelis. 

They deployed one hundred times more destructive power in 2014 than they did in offensives in 2006, 2008 and 2012 combined. 

Some 1,000 tons of unexploded munitions remain on the ground in Gaza.

'The use of immense firepower was terrifying and it left an entire community in chaos,' said Assaf. 

'Nobody can get over all that death and suffering, and many want to leave the Gaza Strip because there is no hope.

'The Israeli government currently just offers more aggression and misery – it reacts to any opposition by destroying everything it can. This achieves nothing except for further violence.' 

Assaf, a graduate in communications, started out as a wedding singer and at one point considered an £80-a-week 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 competition, after arriving too late for the deadline for entries, and another Palestinian generously sacrificed his entry for Assaf's.

'I think about all this every time I am performing in front of jubilant audiences,' said Assaf, who remains single, despite his vast popularity.

'My priority is my work, and doing the very best I can for those in need,' he said. 'My schedule is absolutely non-stop'.

Last month, he was up against One Direction at the MTV (EMA) Awards in Glasgow, and won the Best Middle East Act.

A week earlier, he had released his debut album 'Assaf'.

Assaf became the first Arab singer to perform at the opening of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil over the summer.

A biopic of his remarkable story is planned for next year by acclaimed director Hany Abu-Assad, with filming starting in January.

'It's all a huge honour,' said Assaf. 'All of these projects mean so much to me, but in the end I want to use my success to fight for justice and peace for Palestinians. 

'This is the most important thing to me in the world.'

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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