Daoud Kuttab, executive producer of Shara'a Simsim, the Palestinian version of Sesame Street, holds a Muppet at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah earlier this month. The producers say they have been forced to put production for the 2012 season on hold because of a funding freeze by the U.S. Congress.
This used to be a busy time of year for Shara'a Simsim, the Palestinian version of Sesame Street.
Producers and educators would be choosing the "words of the day" for the upcoming season. Writers would be brainstorming ideas around a large conference table. Project director Laila Sayegh says everyone would be working long days.
"From the morning, like 8 until 6 o'clock in the evening. And now as you can see, it's empty. We have nothing," she says.
The U.S. government was set to donate $2.5 million for three more seasons of the show, which is one of about two dozen versions of Sesame Street around the world.
But in October, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, placed a hold on about $190 million earmarked for a variety of projects in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That means no money to produce Shara'a Simsim.
"Nobody believes the reason is logical," Sayegh says. "You are working on education, on fun stuff, on kids — educating kids and families. So it was really sad for everybody."
Today, the writing workshop room is bare. The Muppets have been sent to New York for repairs. Sayegh is keeping the staff on half salaries and reduced hours. They have some leftover funding to work on projects like making jigsaw puzzles for preschoolers.
Palestinian TV is airing reruns, but kids are getting tired of the same old programming, says puppeteer Rajai Sandouka, as he slouched in an office chair, fingering prayer beads.
"For example, my daughter, she told me, 'I want to see something new.' I can't, I don't know what I tell her," Sandouka says.
The U.S. lawmaker who ordered the hold on funding, Ros-Lehtinen, says that the U.S. should not support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who asked the United Nations to recognize an independent state of Palestine. She said Abbas should be negotiating the matter with Israel instead.
"By providing the Palestinians with $2.5 billion over the last 5 years, the U.S. has only rewarded and reinforced their bad behavior," she said.
The U.S. did give $200 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority last year; it's the funding for non-government organizations that's on hold. Last month, Congress released $40 million of those funds. But with health care, infrastructure and other programs waiting for money, it's doubtful that the Palestinian Sesame Street will get a piece of the pie.
Money For Israel's 'Sesame Street'
While Congress has turned off the tap for Palestinian Sesame Street, the U.S. is helping to support a new season of Israeli Sesame Street. The State Department awarded $750,000 to an Israeli nonprofit to team up with the Israeli show and develop classroom activities.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department says the Israeli grant is unrelated to funding for the Palestinian show. Last week, Israeli producers filmed at a studio near Tel Aviv. The cast includes an Arab Muppet, a wheelchair-bound Muppet, and one familiar red character — Elmo.
Palestinian producers say it's not fair that Israeli kids get new Sesame Street programming while Palestinian kids do not. Danny Labin, an executive at the Israeli TV channel that co-produces the show, agrees that Sesame Street shouldn't be politicized.
"Children, no matter who they are, should not be penalized because of the politicians in the societies around them, over which children have no control," Labin says.
Meanwhile, Sayegh, the Palestinian producer, says her team is optimistic that funding will somehow return. "We will continue, and we will survive," she says.