Arabs From Israel Risk Arrest For ‘Arab Idol’ Show

Their goal is to win Arab Idol, the Arab world’s premiere television song competition.

But the journey Manal Mousa, 25, and Haitham Khalaily, 24, have taken from their villages in Israel to the competition in Lebanon could comprise a television drama of its own – featuring travel to an enemy country, Israeli security interrogations, and the complicated identity crisis of Israel’s Arabs.

The two singers are competing for more than just fame: they want to be a part of the cultural world that has been largely off limits to them because of the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict.

“This is a chance for Haitham,” said Waheeb Khalaily, Haitham’s father, in his home in Majd Al-Krum, a village in the Galilee, in northern Israel. “For the Arab world and the whole world to hear him and say that he represents a Palestinian people that clings to its land.”

In the bitter conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Arab-Israelis are stuck in the middle. Though citizens of the Jewish state, they share the ethnicity, language and culture of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Photo: MBC Press Office/AP
Performing during the Arab Idol Show.

Arabs who remained in Israel after its creation in 1948, and their descendants, today make up 20 percent of the population. Many identify as Palestinians rather than Israelis, watch Arab satellite television and dream of traveling throughout the Middle East. But their Israeli citizenship bars them from most Arab countries because Israeli passport holders are prohibited entry.

That includes the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where many Arab stars are born.

When the show held its first-ever auditions in the West Bank in March, the lure of making it big was too tempting for Mousa and Khalaily to worry about borders.

They, and other young Arab singers in Israel, drove past Israeli military checkpoints to stand in line with hundreds of Palestinians for videotaped auditions. Mousa, Khalaily and two dozen others advanced to the next round in Beirut the following month.

The Israeli-Lebanese border is sealed, so the two used their Israeli passports to cross into neighboring Jordan where they boarded a plane for Beirut. At the Lebanese airport, they presented travel documents that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank issued them especially for the trip, a Palestinian interior ministry official said.

In Beirut, they passed all three rounds of auditions and were chosen to be among the 26 final contestants from around the Arab world – the first time Arabs from Israel have ever been selected for the show.

After Mousa and Khalaily returned to Israel in May to wait for the show’s taping, Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service summoned them for interrogations about their travel, their families said. Their Israeli passports were confiscated and they were told the passports would be revoked for up to three months, the families said. Through the help of rights groups, their passports were returned within days, Mousa’s family said.

The Shin Bet did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Israel has sentenced Arab-Israelis in the past on charges of traveling abroad to conspire with militant groups for attacks against Israel or to fight alongside rebels in Syria.

The same month the two singers traveled to Lebanon, Israel arrested a 23-year-old Arab-Israeli journalist returning from a conference there. Officials initially thought he was recruited by militants but later dropped the suspicion.

Travel to Lebanon is punishable under Israeli law by four years in jail or paying a fine, said Aram Mahameed, a lawyer from the Arab-Israeli rights group Adalah, whom Khalaily’s family consulted after the contestant was interrogated.

“It is a law against the Arabs in Israel to disconnect them from other Arabs in the Arab countries,” said Mahameed.

Though Jewish and Arab Israelis have faced indictment for traveling to Lebanon, their trials generally do not proceed unless they are accused of other crimes, he said, adding that Jewish Israeli journalists who have gone to Lebanon have not been questioned upon their return.

Mousa and Khalaily are now in Beirut taping the show, which is airing weekly on the Arab satellite channel MBC. Show producers said in a statement that contestants were unavailable for media interviews due to “exhausting preparations and tight production deadlines.”

Last year, Lina Makhoul, an Arab-Israeli, won on the Israeli TV singing show The Voice, but her success has been confined to Israel. By contrast, when Mohammed Assaf, a Palestinian from Gaza, won Arab Idol last year, he catapulted to fame, and he continues to perform before Arab audiences throughout the Middle East, the United States and Europe.

It is unclear whether the two contestants’ Israeli connection will affect their chances. Some in the Arab world perceive Arabs in Israel as traitors. Others sympathetically view Israel’s Arabs as those who remained while others fled or were driven out in the 1948 war surrounding the end of the British Mandate of Palestine and the establishment of the Jewish state.

Mousa’s sister, Sabren, said her family feels “100 percent” Palestinian.

“We live in Israel that was originally Palestine. I feel very proud … that we did not give up our lands,” she said from their home in the Galilee village of Deir Al-Assad in Israel’s north.

Though some fans in the contestants’ home base know by word of mouth that they live in Israel, viewers wouldn’t know by watching the show.

Banners on the screen label them as hailing from Palestine, and the show makes no reference to their connections to Israel.

In a recent episode, Mousa sang a Palestinian ballad wearing dark red lipstick, a traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, and a headband of dangling coins.

“I salute the Palestine inside you,” said Lebanese singing heartthrob Wael Kfouri, one of the judges.

“You’re telling people that the voice of Palestine will reach the whole world,” said another judge, Egyptian composer Hassan El Shafei, as the studio audience applauded and Mousa’s eyes filled with tears.

Arab Idol is largely cut off from the singers’ fan base in Israel. The show provides no local phone numbers for Arabs in Israel to dial to vote for contestants, so every week their families drive to the West Bank and use a Palestinian cellphone provider to cast their votes.

Photo: MBC Press Office/AP
Arab Idol Show in Zouk Mosbeh neighborhood, north of Beirut, Lebanon.

Khalaily’s sister says she worries about her brother being charged for breaking Israeli law when he returns from Beirut.

“We hope he won’t face problems, but if he does, he has nothing to fear,” said Eman Khalaily. “He went to sing and that’s what he loves to do … He wants his voice to reach everywhere.”