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Palestinians, Israelis meet on Sesame Street

April 2, 1997

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ Daffy, a purple Muppet with blue pigtails, and Haneen, furry and orange with a mop of pink hair, giggle and shriek with laughter as they repeat _ over and over _ the names of the food they are eating.

``Hummus, falafel!″ they squeal. ``Falafel, hummus!″

Daffy is Israeli and Haneen is Palestinian. At a low point in relations between the two peoples, a joint Israeli-Palestinian production of Sesame Street is headed into new territory.

The show, intended to promote tolerance and respect for others, officially steers clear of politics. But the inevitable disagreements have sometimes made the production process seem like a mini-version of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

``It’s an incredible challenge when you have two groups in a political situation that’s so difficult,″ Lewis Bernstein, executive producer of the series from Children’s Television Workshop in New York, said this week.

The Palestinians and Israelis are each producing their own studio, live-action and animated segments for the show _ Israeli segments in Hebrew, Palestinian segments in Arabic.

The 60 half-hour episodes take place on separate Israeli and Palestinian streets _ Rehov Sumsum and Share’ Simsim _ whose residents visit one another in 25 ``crossover″ segments.

The show packs its message of mutual respect in child-size packages. In the skit ``Common Language,″ Daffy and Haneen learn that both Israelis and Palestinians eat falafel and hummus, and call them by the same names.

Helping bridge the culture gap are two bilingual human characters: Adel and Amal, Arab cousins who speak Hebrew. Adel lives on the Palestinian street; Amal on the Israeli street.

``It’s not reality, but we hope that what we are doing here will one day become reality,″ said Dolly Wolbrum, the Israeli executive producer. ``We have to teach our kids how to live in peace with our neighbors. Nobody taught us.″

Because the show is aimed at 3- to 6-year-olds, politics were supposed to be left out. But ``in the Middle East, everything is politics,″ said Daoud Kuttab, the Palestinian executive producer. ``The moment you’re doing a Palestinian program, it’s political.″

Originally, the Israeli and Palestinian characters were supposed to meet in a neutral middle zone _ a park between the two streets. But the producers of the Palestinian show wanted to know whose park it was, and have a line separating the two sides.

The park was scrapped.

The next Israeli proposal: a chance encounter between the two sides. The Palestinians rejected that.

``We felt they shouldn’t just show up in the middle of our street,″ Kuttab said. ``It’s very important for us to show the Palestinian street as an integral, independent street. It’s NOT part of an Israeli street.″

The compromise: One Israeli boy winds up on the Palestinian street after making a wrong turn on his bicycle; the others come with Amal.

The Israeli and Palestinian producers mostly work separately, the Israelis in Tel Aviv and the Palestinians in east Jerusalem and Ramallah. They filmed the joint segments in Tel Aviv this week, and they have also met to exchange scripts and ideas.

Neither side has veto power over the other’s productions. So while the Israelis objected to the use of the word ``Palestine″ in one skit, the Palestinians plan to leave it in.

The show is scheduled to air at the end of the year or early next year. It will be broadcast on Israeli television, which can be received in Palestinian areas as well.

Still under debate is how friendly the characters should be. The Israelis want them to meet, make friends, and move on to shared activities. ``Three to four segments on getting to know each other _ that should be enough,″ Wolbrum said.

But the Palestinians are reluctant to move beyond the tentative beginnings of friendship. ``We felt there had to be some caution _ otherwise it would be a lie,″ Kuttab said.

In the original Israeli Sesame Street, produced in 1980, one episode showed a group of Arab children coming to the set and dancing with Jewish children to the song ``It’s a Small World.″

The current show will stay away from such fantasy, said Bernstein, the American producer. ``Maybe some day we’ll get to singing and dancing together.″

For now, a shared falafel is beginning enough.

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