At least 5 US-funded projects in Gaza are damaged or destroyed, but most are spared

Dec 21, 2023, 11:30 PM

Less than a year before a Hamas attack out of Gaza sparked a war, one of the oldest and largest sports complexes in the Palestinian territories got a much-needed overhaul: brand-new basketball, volleyball and tennis courts, a soccer field, a running track and, for the first time, accessible bathrooms. It was a $519,000 upgrade, funded by United States taxpayers.

Now, the roof of the Gaza Sports Club appears to be shredded to ribbons, its AstroTurf field crushed under the weight of massive tanks that can be seen in satellite photos obtained by The Associated Press.

Since early October, at least five U.S.-funded community and youth projects in Gaza appear to have been damaged or destroyed, likely by the U.S.-backed Israeli military. However, both in the past and now, Israeli strikes in Gaza appear to have largely spared major infrastructure projects funded by the U.S. government, which has shared their GPS coordinates and other details with the Israeli military for years.

Israel’s offensive is in response to an Oct. 7 Hamas assault in Israel that killed about 1,200 people and took hundreds hostage. Meanwhile, health officials in Hamas-run Gaza say more than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed, and some 1.9 million have fled their homes.

The United Nations has identified more than 37,000 structures destroyed or damaged in the war so far.

The U.S. has spent more than $7 billion in development and humanitarian aid in the West Bank and Gaza since establishing a U.S. Agency for International Development mission decades ago, including $270 million since President Joe Biden ended a Trump-era halt on new funding. For decades, the U.S. also has sent more than $3 billion a year to support Israel’s military, with a pledge from the Biden administration for more than $14 billion in 2023.

“It causes a bit of cognitive dissonance, I would say,” said Howard Sumka, who served as the USAID mission director for Gaza and the West Bank between 2006 and 2010. “It’s important for us to keep providing humanitarian assistance and development assistance, and when the military comes and wipes it out, we start all over again. But it is a little bit Sisyphean.”

The AP reviewed U.S. contracts and grants in Gaza and identified more than 30 construction projects built or improved by American taxpayers in the enclave. A review of recent satellite images and analysis from Maxar Technologies finds that, while more than a dozen major U.S.-backed projects appear to be intact, there has been damage to at least five. The AP independently verified Maxar’s assessment by examining its satellite images, as well as images from separate satellites captured by Planet Labs in recent weeks.

The Israeli military would not comment on damage to U.S.-supported structures or provide any information about its targets.

The exact cause of the damage seen in images cannot be determined by photos alone. In some cases, news reports and government sources verified Israeli military attacks near U.S.-backed projects in Gaza.

Israel blames Hamas for the damage, saying the group uses Gaza’s civilian infrastructure as cover to stage attacks, hide its fighters and weapons and build tunnels underground. It also says that hundreds of misfired Hamas rockets aimed at Israel have instead landed inside Gaza.

The AP was unable to reach Palestinian officials in Gaza due to repeated communications disruptions.

The CEO and president of Anera, a U.S. contractor that has built dozens of infrastructure projects in Gaza, including the Sports Club, called its destruction “a terrible tragedy.”

“This war is exacting a terrible toll – on human lives and the infrastructure of daily life – that will be felt for decades to come,” Sean Carroll said.

In 2011, USAID contributed $138,000 to help construct the Arab Orthodox Cultural Center, a two-story building complete with a theater, ballroom and lecture hall. Satellite images from October appear to show major damage to the center.

Two different centers serving children with disabilities appear to have been damaged or destroyed in recent days, according to Maxar images from Dec. 20. The Right to Live Society for children with autism and Down syndrome and the Abilities Enhancement Center for Jabalia Rehabilitation Society supporting disabled children were built with $28,000 and $177,000 in U.S. funding respectively.

Meanwhile, the Gaza YMCA library, renovated with $89,000 in U.S. funds, escaped unscathed, while at least one city block next to it was entirely leveled.

The Rosary Sisters School, which serves both Muslim and Christian children, sustained some damage in a recent airstrike. In 2022, $495,000 in U.S. taxpayer funds built new classrooms with smart boards, air conditioning, an elevator and a brand new floor to make room for a high school.

Maxar satellite images show debris and damage strewn across the school’s courtyard, which served as a basketball court and assembly area for hundreds of students.

But the school buildings themselves were still standing as of Nov. 22, as are the majority of significant U.S.-funded projects in Gaza, critical infrastructure in the impoverished region where clean drinking water was scarce even before the current war — including a desalination plant near Deir Al Balah in Gaza that the U.S. spent $16 million expanding, along with two water reservoirs and pumping facilities at Al Bureij and Al Maghazi, which cost around $7 million combined.

That’s likely the outcome of precise and extensive communication between American officials and the Israeli military, several former USAID directors said. A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomatic negotiations said that current U.S. government engagement with Israel is focused on protecting civilians, but that details about the locations of U.S.-funded infrastructure are readily available due to longstanding and ongoing coordination.

Dave Harden, who served as USAID mission director from 2013 to 2016, said he worked “extremely closely” with the Israeli officials.

“I would give them the coordinates and tell them not to hit it,” he said.

The USAID mission began with small improvements. With a budget of just $25 million, Christopher Crowley, USAID’s first West Bank and Gaza mission director who arrived after the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel signed the Oslo peace accords, oversaw the construction of a playground for Palestinian children.

Basketball courts came next, and soon American taxpayers were paying contractors to refurbish roads and build apartments in Gaza.

Infrastructure projects, particularly related to water access, were something the Palestinian and Israeli governments could agree on, and the United States served as a bridge between them, Crowley said. The idea was to help lay the foundation for a future Palestinian state alongside Israel.

In 1999, the new Mission Director, Larry Garber, had ambitious plans to build a vibrant economy in Gaza while promoting peace in the region. There would be strawberry markets and flower exports, a major desalination plant and water system. At the same time, U.S. taxpayers began paying nearly $3 billion a year to Israel to support its military efforts.

Less than a year later, the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted. There were both airstrikes and ground operations, with tanks and armored vehicles. Garber said he would meet with Israeli military leaders and ask them not to hit the U.S.-backed projects.

“We would literally tell them, here’s the geolocations of our various projects, and for the most part in those days we didn’t have incidents of destruction of those facilities,” he said. However, Garber said he remembers USAID complaining to Israeli authorities after four recently repaired agricultural wells were destroyed in an airstrike in 2003.

A roadside bombing that year struck a U.S. diplomatic convoy, killing three Americans and prompting the U.S. to bar its diplomatic personnel from entering Gaza. USAID has continued to sponsor projects through local contractors.

Plans for a major U.S. water project were shelved when Hamas seized control of Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007, and for years USAID scaled back. The U.S. considers Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, a terror organization, and has no direct contact with it.

“During my time, we didn’t build any big roads, we didn’t have any big water projects,” said Sumka, who was mission director at the time. “We were forbidden to go in there.”

Development work resumed when tensions eased, said Mike Harvey, who was mission director from 2010 to 2013. But the cycle continued: The U.S. would build, advise Israeli authorities the geolocation of the infrastructure and hope for the best. Israel and Hamas have fought five wars and numerous skirmishes since late 2008.

“This reflects the priorities Israelis give to make sure that no U.S.-funded infrastructure is hit,” Harvey said, because of the obvious “discomfort from that.”

The decision to rebuild USAID-branded projects again and again has also been part of a larger political strategy to turn the Palestinian population against Hamas, mission directors said.

“Humanitarian aid was the driving incentive,” Harvey said. But “it’s sending a political message to the people of Gaza: We are not their enemy.”

It’s also about hope. The purpose of the Gaza and West Bank mission was to help stabilize the region and bolster opportunities for Palestinians, ranging from brokering cross-border trade agreements to education programs and infrastructure projects.

But the scale of this particularly violent and deadly war may also influence what USAID is able to accomplish in the future. Nothing gets built in Gaza without agreement from Israel, which may be reluctant to greenlight big infrastructure projects without firm guarantees that no supplies useful for weapons reach Hamas.

“Can you imagine how difficult it will be to rebuild Gaza after the scale of destruction we’re seeing this time around?” Harvey said.

Some of the former USAID directors said their hope for Gaza’s future is waning.

“There was always some hope that we’d be able to negotiate a solution, as naive as that sounds,” Harden said. “I was always a believer. Not anymore, sadly.”

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At least 5 US-funded projects in Gaza are damaged or destroyed, but most are spared