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West Bank singer loses

SALFIT, West Bank -- Palestinians hoping for a morale boost after four years of bloody conflict with Israel were disappointed yesterday, when their contestant in a much-watched contest for the Arab world's best singer lost to a Libyan.

Ammar Hassan, 27, from the town of Salfit, became the darling of the Palestinian people as he made his way through the stages of the 13-week ''Superstar 2" competition on the Lebanese TV channel al-Mustaqbal.

As with practically everything in Palestinian society, the song contest became a symbolic element in the campaign for a state and against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories the Palestinians claim.

About 5,000 people crowded into the park in the center of Salfit to watch the TV broadcast from Beirut by satellite. They stood stunned and silent when it was announced that Libyan singer Eyman Al-Atar outpolled Hassan by a wide margin.

Gracious in defeat, Hassan and the winner took the stage together, holding each other's national flags in a sign of unity.

Voting became a frenzy in Salfit on the final day. The town of about 12,000 people in the central West Bank dropped everything to vote for Ammar again and again, and Palestinians from nearby villages helped out.

Bashar Sabra, 25, from the village of Brukhin, said he and seven friends spent $650 to cast multiple ballots with their cellphones.

At a community center, a happy furor erupted when Ahmed Fulpan, 16, discovered a shortcut that would allow quick multiple voting for Hassan over the Internet.

''There is more than one way to fight for your country," observed the young computer whiz.

Despite the sad ending, the song contest provided a welcome three-month diversion. Salfit is across the road from Ariel, the second-largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank with 18,000 residents, and clashes between Palestinians and Israelis are common, leading to curfews and Israeli Army sweeps.

Greeting a stream of visitors to his house yesterday, the singer's father, Hassan Daqrouq, 63, said his son had become a symbol of his people's struggle for independence. The small house was decorated with posters of the singer alongside piles of videotapes of his performances.

Islamic groups and some political operatives, however, were critical of the frivolity at a time when Palestinian prisoners are on a hunger strike against their Israeli captors. Even the preacher at the Salfit mosque had unkind words during his Friday Sabbath sermon.

During last week's televised final round, gunmen linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in some West Bank towns forced cinema operators to shut down their large screens of the TV broadcast.

Daqrouq, loading his videocassette recorder with a tape of his son's ''Superstar" rendition of ''Al Quds," or ''Jerusalem," rejected the criticism.

''We've had problems here for years. We've had fighting and bloodshed. If we were to stop everything every time something happens, we would never accomplish a thing," he said. ''To each his own. Some fight for Palestine. My son sings for Palestine."

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