Seeking to improve its image among Palestinians, the United States has launched an advertising campaign in the West Bank, using billboards and television commercials filled with grinning children to tell Palestinians they have cleaner water and more classrooms thanks to its generosity.
But the U.S. government's campaign is off to a tough start: No Palestinian entertainer or athlete was willing to serve as its goodwill ambassador, reflecting widespread anti-American sentiment. No political leaders were asked to participate.
The prevailing view is that the ad money is being wasted - and that attitudes won't budge until Washington drops what Palestinians consider its pro-Israel bias and gets serious about Palestinian statehood.
Such attitudes might be reinforced if Mahmoud Abbas comes away empty-handed from a meeting with President Bush at the White House on Thursday. The Palestinian leader is seeking U.S. political and economic support; congressional aides and an administration official said Wednesday that Bush does plan to steer more money directly to the Palestinian Authority.
The three-week ad campaign was commissioned by USAID, a U.S. government agency that previously kept a low profile while giving $1.5 billion to the Palestinians over the past decade - more than any other agency.
Washington also gives Israel about $2.5 billion a year in military and economic aid.
Inexpensive air time The ad campaign, which began this month and coincided with Laura Bush's Middle East goodwill tour, may be an uphill battle, but in the West Bank it is a bargain. Air time on local TV and radio stations is cheap - a 20-second radio spot costs just $5 - and USAID felt it had nothing to lose by getting some exposure among Palestinians.
"Even if they are not going to change their minds about America, at least they are starting to learn that the Americans are doing something for them," USAID spokeswoman Sylvana Foa said.
She said the campaign grew out of poll findings that only 5 percent of Palestinians knew of USAID's work.
The ads focus on U.S. help in providing water, health care and education. One spot says more than 1 million Palestinians now have clean water. Another says more than 800,000 people have better health care. A third talks about 2,000 new classrooms.
Ads are broadcast 15 times a day on local radio and eight times a day on local TV stations as well as two Arab satellite stations, and messages are plastered on 70 billboards. Each ad ends with the slogan: "From people to people," separating the aid from U.S. government policy.
More than PR needed The campaign has generated mostly cynical responses from Palestinians, who blame much of their suffering on U.S. support for Israel.
"They are wasting their money," said Michel Nasser, head of Bethlehem's Peace Center, a museum and tourism center on Manger Square. "It's like a drop in the bucket."
USAID had hoped to enlist a Palestinian celebrity as its spokesman, but was turned down by actresses, singers and athletes. "People were uncomfortable with this," Foa said.
In the end, Rifaat Tourk, a retired Israeli Arab soccer star popular in the West Bank, was signed up. As goodwill ambassador, he has visited several West Bank villages and refugee camps, holding soccer workshops for children, handing out balls, hats and T-shirts with the USAID logo and pointing out local projects funded by American money.
"People understand that the American people want to help them," said Tourk, 50.
Municipal officials say USAID projects - laying water pipes, paving roads and giving small business loans to housebound women - have improved daily life in many places.
Water once had to be trucked in to the northern West Bank villages of Beit Furik and Beit Dajan. USAID made the water cheaper and more accessible by building a pumping station and repairing a well for $100,000.
Abdel Halim Hafez, 32, a teacher in Beit Dajan, said most villagers didn't know they owed the vast improvement in their lives to America.
Some Palestinians bristle at the conditions attached to U.S. money, such as a mandatory pledge by those involved in projects that they have no ties to violent groups. Others say the European Union has been far more generous than America, with the EU member nations giving a total of $4.4 billion over the past decade.
Critics also note that large sums of USAID money are spent on repairing damage from Israeli military offensives against Palestinian militants.
"The United States should prevent Israel from destroying our infrastructure, instead of spending money to fix it," said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator. "Through the Israeli polices and practices, the U.S. loses credibility. It is going to be very difficult to undo the damage through PR campaigns."
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