JERUSALEM — Organizers of the Palestinian version of "American Idol" said Thursday the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers have banned residents from participating in the popular reality show.
The organizers said Hamas told them the program is "indecent," in what appears to be a new attempt by the fundamentalist militant Muslim group to crack down on behavior it sees as contrary to its conservative interpretation of Islam.
In the past, Hamas has banned women from riding on the backs of motorbikes, women from smoking water pipes, and men from working in hair salons – saying such practices were immodest. Not all bans are imposed uniformly.
The ban on competing in New Star came around the same time that Hamas police beat up members of Gaza's tiny Shiite minority while they tried to hold a religious ceremony.
Alaa al-Abed, the chief producer of the "New Star" program, said the edict would prevent Gaza's 12 contestants from competing in the upcoming second round of the competition Thursday night. It will be broadcast next month. He said he was informed of the decision last Saturday.
"This is more serious than Hamas just killing fun in Gaza – they are limiting the freedoms of the people, according to their whims," al-Abed said.
There was no official comment from Hamas.
In the past, Gaza contestants have competed via video conference due to travel restrictions imposed on Gaza residents by Egypt and Israel. This year Hamas banned that form of participation as well.
New Star is broadcast on satellite television in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel. A panel of judges rate performers signing pop songs, and viewers vote for their favorites.Now in its third year, it is a popular show with Palestinians.
In past years, contestants have included young women crooning in sleeveless dresses – a look that is unthinkable in conservative Gaza – while others wore Muslim headscarves. All of this year's Gaza contestants were men.
Hamas permits male barbershop style singing groups that do not use musical instruments and sing of the glory of Islam and to fighting Israel. Young, prepubescent girls also perform in their own singing groups, but teenage girls and women are never seen singing in public. Many devout Muslims believe singing by women is provocative.
Al-Abed said he was told by the head of Gaza's government press office, Hassan Abu Hashish, that the local singers could not compete because the program was not in compliance with the territory's culture and it was not morally acceptable.
Abu Hashish could not be reached for comment. But a statement released Wednesday by his office accused New Star's owners, the Palestinian news agency Maan, of incitement in a lengthy series of grievances about the company. Maan is based in the more liberal West Bank and receives generous funding from European donor nations.
"It has harmed (our) culture and traditions," Abu Hashish's statement read. They "show all of Gaza ... as if its youth search for singing programs."
Al-Abed said that Gazans were able to participate last year without any limitations. He urged Hamas to change its policy.
"People want to participate. We tried to make (Abu-Hashish) understand – even if only 5 percent of people want to sing, if they want to participate – why prevent them?"
Organizers say they hope that New Star can help unite the Palestinians, who have been divided between rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza since Hamas violently took control of Gaza in 2007. The Palestinians hope to turn the two territories, located on opposite sides of Israel, into an independent state.