Over the past seven years, a musical phenomenon has been rising from the back streets of Israel's predominantly Muslim towns, and sweeping the overcrowded Palestinian cities and refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza. It is Palestinian rap or hip-hop music, an exotic blend of Arabic melodies, Western beat, and fluid lyrics recited in English, Arabic, and, quite often, Hebrew.
Rap music first flourished in the ghettos of Los Angeles and New York during the 1970s. Now young Palestinian musicians have tailored the style to express their own grievances with the social and political climate in which they live and work.
After a long struggle, bands such as Dam (meaning "blood" in both Hebrew and Arabic) - the first to emerge on the scene in 1998 - are now gaining ground on the international stage.
The message of their music isn't always political. Their songs also confront other issues important to young Palestinians. But unlike American "gangster rappers," they protest against drugs and crime instead of glorifying them. These artists also consider rap music to be one of the few methods of self-expression for them in highly regulated Israel.
The three members of Dam - Tamer Nafar, Suhell Nafar, and Mahmoud Grere - are natives of Lod, a mixed Jewish-Muslim town in the center of Israel that is notorious for high crime, drug abuse, and soaring unemployment.
The Samekh Het district in which the musicians grew up is filled with blocks of decrepit apartments. The streets are unnamed and unpaved; garbage lies piled in the gutters and on street corners.
"No one cares about this area, because the residents are mostly 'Arabs,' " asserts Tamer, the guiding light of the group.
In many ways, the problems faced by these youths, commonly labeled "Israeli Arabs," are more complex than those of their fully Palestinian counterparts.
Despite restrictions on their daily lives, Palestinians retain a strong sense of identity. But Israeli Arabs are "caught in the middle," says Tamer. "To Israeli Jews, we're suicidal Arabs, but to the Arab countries, we're traitors."
Despite this, many young people like Tamer regard themselves as Palestinian. "Our parents are Palestinians who were forced from their homes in 1948, and were held temporarily in Lod," he says. "But for some reason, they weren't moved on, like our uncles and aunts, as refugees to Lebanon and Jordan. They stayed in Israel, but they're still Palestinians, and so are we, their children."
This sense of being caught between cultures is a theme that recurs in Dam's music. "The Israeli Jews who live just five minutes away from us have no idea who we are," says Tamer. "So we rap in Hebrew to reach out to them. Our lyrics are also in English, because that's the original language of rap, and in Arabic because we have a lot to say to the Arab nations, too."
While many of their songs focus on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the members of Dam don't think of themselves as anti-Israeli.
"Our music does focus on protest, but not only against Zionism," Tamer explains. "We also protest against the Arab male dictatorship in the Middle East, against the drug dealers and criminals who destroy our neighborhoods and our youth, and against the way many musicians produce shallow material just to fill big bank accounts."
For Dam, as for most Palestinian rap artists, music is a tool for social commentary. "Artists can be the best politicians," says Tamer. "It's our duty to reach out into the world with a message."
Despite their hard-hitting themes, Tamer says the message is not negative: "If we're able to make music and expose these issues, that's positive in itself," he says. "Sure, we're talking about painful things, but we're telling the world that everything will be all right if we just obtain the right skills, if we study and acquire knowledge - because knowledge is power."
In contrast to controversial "gangster rappers," such as Snoop Dogg and the late Tupac Shakur, Palestinian rappers have a clean-cut image. While gangster rap often glorifies crime, guns, and drugs, young Palestinian musicians eschew the terror and violence that often erupts outside their front doors.
Because of Internet distribution of the group's music, Dam's message is now reaching listeners of many nationalities and social backgrounds. They regularly play to sellout audiences in Israel, the occupied territories, and in Europe, and expect to release their first album in 2006.
"A few years ago, if someone had told me that people from all over the world would be listening to music made by a group of poor young guys from Lod, I wouldn't have believed them," says Tamer. "Personally, my biggest success is that I'm actually out there doing something. My parents are so proud of me. It would have been so easy to just step into the criminal world, like many of my friends. But my ambitions are to raise a family, and one day tour the USA. We also want to lead a new generation of Palestinian artists, to build a 'roof' over our heads under which Palestinian cultural talent can grow."
But, he says, it's also important to live for the moment: "We take things day to day, just trying to survive. And that's hip-hop. Hip-hop is about surviving."
"Our eyes watch as our children seeking/ A future that has in it, 'the sky's the limit':/ A slogan that's been covered with the ruins' dust/ But the light hasn't been turned off yet."
- Dam's 'Born Here'
"You grew up in indulgence, we grew up in poverty./ You grew up in spacious homes, we grew up in burrows./ And he, who lost his way, you turned into a criminal./Then you have the nerve to call me a terrorist?"
- Dam's 'The Flower'
"We encounter faces that don't want us, looks full of disgust/ whispers full of swearing, just wishing to expel us./What? Did you forget who made the foundations for these buildings?"
- Dam's 'A Stranger in My Own Country'