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Gaza on the Ground
A Vengeful U.S. Congresswoman Halts Funding for Palestinian "Sesame Street"
By Mohammed Omer
The iconic U.S.-funded Palestinian children's program "Shara'a Simsim," the Palestinian franchise of the American public television program "Sesame Street," has become a casualty of one of the most rabidly pro-Israel members of Congress. The show is one of several educational/entertainment projects supported by a $192 million grant to the Palestinian Authority through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Last December House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ross-Lehtinen (R-FL) put a hold on the USAID program funds.
In addition to restricting the educational offerings to Palestinian children, Ros-Lehtinen's action affects other social services as well, including healthcare, sewage, and various government ministries in the West Bank and Gaza. Many Palestinians view the funding freeze as punishment for Palestine's 2011 bid for full U.N. membership. Palestinian Minister of Labor Ahmed Al Majdalwi in Ramallah supports their assessment, stating that the cessation of financial support for the children's program is "a political decision, and…biased toward Israel."
Kareem and Haneen, like Bert and Ernie, are two of "Shara'a Simsim's" colorful Muppets who deliver messages of tolerance, love, neighborliness and fairness to the children of Palestine. The series has become a source of hope for families living in the harsh reality of violence, hate and starvation. But the balance of its 2012 season is now on hold.
Those "most affected by this [suspension of funding] are the Palestinian child, his family and the society," noted Layla Sayegh, "Shara'a Simsim" project manager in Palestine. All the show's scriptwriters and producers have been laid off, she said. Despite the fact that "Shara'a Simsim" is part of the global "Sesame Street" franchise, Sayegh admitted that "We have reached the point of not being able to produce [episodes], due to production costs being very high."
Beatrice Chow, spokeswoman for the Sesame Street Workshop in New York, confirmed that the Palestinian show is currently on hold.
Since "Shara'a Simsim" debuted in 1996, funding shortfalls have forced it to take several extended hiatuses. In its 15 years of existence it has completed just five seasons. According to executive producer Daoud Kuttab, that all changed in 2008, when USAID funding covered nearly all the program's costs, from writing through post-production. But today the once bustling soundstage in Ramallah lies empty.
A Policy of Austerity as Retribution
In addition to "Shara'a Simsim," a variety of essential public services designed to assist or educate Palestinians have been targeted by the U.S. Congress. The threat to cut funding had been made prior to the Palestinian Authority's September 2011 bid for full membership. However, it was not until UNESCO, the U.N.'s non-political cultural body, chose to admit Palestine on that basis that Congress and the administration moved to punish both the offending body and the people of Palestine. Immediately after the Oct. 31 vote to admit Palestine, Washington cut off funding to UNESCO. A State Department spokeswoman announced that a scheduled November payment of roughly $60 million to UNESCO would not be made. And that was only the beginning.
Nor is "Shar'a Simsim" the only victim of political retribution. Seventy-year-old Safia Abdelrahman Abu Fsefes epitomizes the story of tens of thousands of Gazans who are not refugees, and therefore not eligible for United Nations-sponsored refugee programs through UNRWA. With Israel's continued siege and blockade of Gaza, she and her 12 grandchildren depend upon a monthly food and cash allowance administered by the Palestinian Authority. The money goes to pay rent on the house they have lived in since her family's home was demolished during Israel's 2004 Operation Rainbow assault on Rafah. The food feeds her family. Every three months, four sacks of flour, a few kilos of powdered milk, rice, a few liters of oil and some lentils are what keep Safia and her family alive. Now she fears that this will end.
"Isn't it enough that we have been waiting for years for our house to be built by donors?" she asks in dismay. Regarding the withholding of USAID money she asks in disbelief, "Do you want us to die?"
Safia's grandchildren attend schools in Rafah, the main city in the southern Gaza Strip. The funding freeze will affect education services as well. Then there's the matter of healthcare. When Safia or her grandchildren are sick, she turns first to the government-run hospital. "This disappearing healthcare means catastrophe for everyone here," she laments.
Dr. Mads Gilbert, the Norwegian doctor who has worked in Gaza, including during Operation Cast Lead, compares the U.S. policy of austerity as retribution to a form of "capital punishment" against the Palestinians for seeking full U.N. membership.
"The U.S. is now 'waterboarding' the civilian Palestinian societies in West Bank, Gaza and the much deprived and needy diaspora in Lebanon," he charged. "It's truly shocking and unbelievably vengeful."
In her tiny, poorly equipped kitchen, Safia cooks some beans, a few zucchini, carrots and potatoes—all too aware that she can never afford meat for herself or her children, and that even the little they have is at risk.