Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University. He is the author of “Sesame Street, Palestine.”
Of all the punitive and one-sided decisions that President Trump has taken against Palestinians this year, the latest one defunding cooperation programs between Palestinians and Israelis is one that I can support.
Following the cut of nearly $300 million in support to a U.N. agency providing humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees and $25 million to East Jerusalem hospitals, Washington announced the end of a program bringing Israeli and Palestinian children together.
The White House cut $10 million worth of funding to a so-called coexistence program that includes joint Palestinian and Israeli soccer games, farming efforts and other reconciliation projects. The Trump administration did the right thing. It makes little sense to pretend that things are normal in Palestine and Israel. It is illogical to fund a program that brings Israeli and Palestinian children to play soccer as if there is no occupation, no walls, no exclusive settlements for Jews or no siege on Gaza.
I am not against such projects in principle. After all, I worked on a Sesame Street project shortly after the Oslo Accords that had these same lofty goals. Our project, supported partially by USAID, failed to accomplish our joint coexistence goals. The current projects are destined to fail; you can’t talk about coexistence and pretend that everything is all fine when it is not.
Researchers evaluated our joint “Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim” production in the 1990s. They found that it had more positive effects on Israeli children’s perceptions than on Palestinian children’s. At the time, I told the researchers and the Sesame producers that you can do a lot to change the perception of Israelis who have only imaginary ideas of Palestinians. But for Palestinians who see soldiers and checkpoints and witness their parents being humiliated, no coexistence program for children could ever erase such tough images.
Last Friday, U.S. peace envoy Jason Greenblatt dedicated two consecutive tweets to the defunding of kids’ soccer, saying: “I continue to believe in the importance of building relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly kids. But … both Palestinian and Israeli kids will lose, and these programs will be meaningless, if the [Palestinian Authority] continues to condemn a plan they haven’t seen & refuses to engage on it. Hopefully the PA will lead… let’s see.”
But Greenblatt was silent on a much deadlier decision affecting Palestinian kids. A week earlier, the Trump administration abruptly decided to defund six tertiary hospitals in East Jerusalem. Among other things, these hospitals provide critical cancer care to Palestinian children.
Ironically, Greenblatt last year seemed to support the hospitals and tweeted praise for “a team of dedicated @StJohnEyeHosp surgeons [who] traveled to Gaza to provide critical specialized operations.”
According to the United Nations, since the Jerusalem embassy move dozens of unarmed Palestinians have been killed. No expression of sorry or wishes for speedy recovery have come from Trump’s peace team. Instead, their tweets condemn Hamas for supporting the protest. Greenblatt, along with Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, said in a July 19 Post op-ed in all seriousness that Hamas has weaponized “everything from kites to mirrors in order to attack Israel.”
Palestinians and Israelis are destined to live together. They need to find a way to share the land (two-state solution) or share the power (one-state solution). In either solution, Americans, as the third-party sponsor, must act in a neutral way if they truly intend to help bring about peace. Any coexistence project must begin the day after peace is reached. Only then can it make sense to spend funds to improve the image that Israelis and Palestinians have of each other.
But as long as the conflict reflects an asymmetrical situation, with Israeli military occupiers controlling every aspect of the lives of occupied Palestinians, no soft-power program is going to make a dent in the deep anger and hatred that comes as a result.