Last Updated: Thu Oct 13, 2011 10:44 am (KSA) 07:44 am (GMT)

U.S. Congress ruining 10 years of work in Palestine

Daoud Kuttab

Haroon Abu Araa has come a long way. In the 15 years I have known him, I have seen the transformation and maturity, from a radical university student activist to his present day position as director of Al Quds Educational Television in Ramallah.

He took me this week on a tour of the media lab at Al Quds University that was funded last year by USAID. He proudly explained how 450 media students at the university would benefit from this high-tech lab and made sure to tell the visitors that local companies helped by supplying furniture for the media lab.

But Abu Araa’s excitement was mixed with pessimism, because this important development is now being interrupted by a decision of the U.S. Congress to halt funding for Palestinians.

Supporting the media lab is part of a three-year plan designed with Internews Network, which included training of faculty, developing media curriculum and helping Palestinians build a vibrant and independent audiovisual media industry. The unexpected temporary halt of approved and planned programs by USAID is seen as punishment of the Palestinian people for their leadership’s decision to seek statehood recognition at the U.N.

The hold U.S. Congress members placed on funding for Palestinians covers many other areas that are critical to the nation-building process that the entire world (including the U.S. and Israel) is in favor of. It includes, for example, support for educational programs, like model schools and preschool education. In a young society such as the Palestinians’ where the majority of the population is under 25, what is invested in children yields dividends in the future.

Palestinian children in their formative years constitute, perhaps, one of the most critical groups in this regard. With the public and private sectors unable to build enough preschools to meet a growing demand, education through multi-media becomes crucial.

Palestinian educational ministry sources estimated that as many as 65 per cent of all Palestinian children enter first grade without having been exposed to any preschool learning. Perhaps this is why Palestinian educators embraced the USAID-funded educational programs targeting this age bracket.
For years, Israelis and pro-Israeli groups have focused on the need to teach concepts of peace and reconciliation, to have them included in curricula and mass media targeting children.

Sharaa Simsim, the Palestinian Sesame street program, introduced both cognitive skills and crucial life skills. Sharing, tolerance, mutual respect are introduced to children through colorful and lovable muppets with names such as Karim and Hanin and settings similar to those any Palestinian child is familiar with.

The educational program is not focused only on television. Preschool teachers’ training as well as outreach programs ensured that the process is holistic.

A comprehensive website, sharaasimim.ps, was also created, providing information, games and materials for children, parents and teachers. Major Palestinian cities have billboards announcing this website and encouraging families to use this important resource.

This important progress in planting positive seeds for the future of Palestine and the region is going to be interrupted by ill-advised U.S. politicians.
The importance of these programs was underlined by none other than the US secretary of defense who came to Israel seeking Tel Aviv’s help with his own country’s House of Representatives.

Former USAID director Howard Sumka, who was instrumental in getting many of these programs started, called the congressional meddling shooting one’s own foot.

All this did not escape Abu Araa, who says that he was dreaming of creating a satellite channel focused entirely on Palestinian children using the Sesame programs as major content.

He expressed puzzlement over the way things have developed over the years: “The past few years have seen major change in public perception,” he told this writer.

“People have really come to respect and appreciate what the U.S. is doing in Palestine.”

Now, in one move, the U.S. Congress will be ruining all the accomplishments made in the last 10 years. One wonders if the generous people of America know all this.

This article was first published in Dar Al Hayat on Oct. 12, 2011

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