An Arab-Israeli is one of five contestants vying for a place in the finals of “Arab Idol,” the Arab world’s leading TV song competition.
Haitham Khalaily, 24, from the northern Israeli village of Majd al-Krum, will face another two rounds of voting in a bid to be crowned this season’s winner.
Khalaily faced bureaucratic and legal hurdles as an Israeli citizen to attend the Beirut-based contest — including an interrogation by the Shin Bet intelligence service upon his return from a taping session in Lebanon in May.
Lebanon is declared an enemy state by Israel, and the travel of Israelis to its territory is illegal under both Israeli and Lebanese law. Khalaily made the trip with travel documents prepared by the Palestinian Authority.
“This is a chance for Haitham,” Waheeb Khalaily, Haitham’s father told AP in October. “For the Arab world and the whole world to hear him and say that he represents a Palestinian people that clings to its land.”
Based on the popular “Pop Idol” franchise, the third season of “Arab Idol” premiered on September 5, 2014, with 26 contestants, including another Israeli, Manal Moussa, who was given the boot last Sunday.
Downplaying his Israeli connections, Khalaily’s nationality is listed as Palestinian on the tournament’s official website, and no mention of his Israeli citizenship is aired during the program.
However in an apparent October slip-up, the show’s broadcaster, Saudi MBC TV network was forced to apologize to its viewers for using the name Israel instead of Palestine on a map detailing the nationality of each contender.
The apology came after viewers strongly condemned the network and threatened to boycott its programs. MBC claimed that Israel appeared as a result of a “technical error,” and that the name was promptly replaced.
This season marks the first time that Arab Israelis have been allowed to perform on the show.
“Arab Idol” is largely cut off from the show’s 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.
Millions of viewers watch the contest, and last year’s season two finale was watched by over 100 million people, according to London-based Asharq Al-Awsat.
Last year, Mohammed Assaf, a young wedding singer from a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, won the prize.
Assaf said he had to plead with Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers to let him leave the territory, then bribe Egyptian border guards to enter the country en route to Lebanon to compete.
Khalaily’s sister told AP in an interview in October that 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.”
AP contributed to this report.