Palestinian wins Israeli version of 'Big Brother'

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The Independent Online

For once the Arab-Israeli conflict was pushed to one side when a Palestinian Christian was named as the winner of Project Y, Israel's version of Big Brother. Remarkably, in a land riven by the conflict, Firas Houri won the popular phone-in vote.

Despite the 21-year-old Mr Houri's popularity as the show progressed, nobody believed that the only Arab in the house could win. In fact, shutting an Arab up in a villa full of Jewish Israelis for three months, as the producers of Project Y did, could be said to have been a risky venture.

It turned out a resounding success. Mr Houri is one of the "Israeli Arabs", Palestinians who live in Israel and have Israeli citizenship. They are the descendants of those Palestinians who managed to stay in what became Israel when others fled or were forced out in 1948.

Though today they account for around a million of Israel's 6.6 million citizens, there is little social interaction between Arab and Jewish citizens - and the intifada has only heightened the mutual distrust. Few Israeli Arabs have been involved in suicide bombings or other attacks, but they are viewed by many in Israel with suspicion.

As a result, Mr Houri's popularity in the television show is all the more surprising. Many of the other contestants admitted he was the first real Arab friend they had ever made. For most of the show, Mr Houri chose not to talk about politics, except for one occasion when he told the other contestants about his home village in the north of Israel, and its history in the 1948 conflict out of which modern Israel was born.

But Mr Houri stressed repeatedly during the show that what matters to him is individual people, not race or religion. He has a Jewish girlfriend - such relationships are rare - and lives with her in Tel Aviv. They met at Tel Aviv University.

Mr Houri's open-mindedness has won him a lot of popularity in Israel - and his own TV show. The prize for winning Project Y is the chance to present his own programme for a year.

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