The White House has blocked an emergency effort to finish major U.S.-funded school, water and sewage projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to documents reviewed by NPR.
It is the latest of a series of moves by the Trump administration to shut down U.S. aid to Palestinians, which is scheduled to end Feb 1.
In the West Bank, a nearly complete multimillion-dollar sewage network in Jericho will have to be buried under asphalt and abandoned, and a $1.4 million school facility under construction in the Bethlehem area will be left behind, according to a recent document from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Anera, the U.S.-funded aid group carrying out the school project, recently received notification from the U.S. government that it may have to tear down the school, said Sean Carroll, the head of Anera.
USAID, which oversees these projects, will lay off most of its local staff within months, U.S. officials say. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the matter publicly.
"To abandon schools and water systems while in the midst of construction represents the worst instincts of this administration," said Dave Harden, who oversaw U.S. aid programs in the Palestinian territories under the Obama administration. "This peace team has no shame."
For years, the United States was the largest aid donor to the Palestinians, as part of a strategy to develop the Palestinian territories and help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But in 2018, the U.S. slashed more than half a billion dollars in aid for Palestinians, in part to pressure Palestinian leaders to cooperate with the U.S. on a peace deal with Israel that President Trump promises to soon unveil. Palestinian leaders severed ties with the U.S. after the Trump administration recognized the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
After the aid cuts, there was still some assistance, about $30 million according to one official's estimate, being spent on projects started in previous years.
But that remaining money was put in jeopardy with the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, which President Trump signed into law in October. Under the act, starting next month, if Palestinians receive U.S. aid, the Palestinian Authority could be compelled to pay millions of dollars in compensation to families of American victims of past Palestinian attacks.
The Palestinian Authority rejects responsibility for attacks and says it fights terror. The authority has informed the U.S. that it will not accept aid money spent under these conditions, U.S. officials say.
Scott Anderson, a former State Department attorney, wrote that "the Palestinian leadership has determined that the limited U.S. foreign assistance currently received is far outweighed by the potential liability to which they would be subjected if they were to accept it."
By Feb. 1, the officials say all the government's aid programs for Palestinians will end.
Last-ditch effort denied
USAID officials spent months quietly seeking a workaround in order to save seven major Palestinian infrastructure projects from being abandoned: five water and sewage projects and two schools, government documents show. Aid officials drafted a request for the government to approve about $17 million in emergency funds for these projects, drawn from a pool of money labeled Development Assistance, which would be permitted under the anti-terrorism act.
In a draft proposal, USAID officials argued that finishing these projects would "mitigate reputational and security risk to the U.S. government" and avoid "significant waste" of government investments in water and sewage systems already being built to serve tens of thousands of Palestinians. Abandoning these projects "could contribute to civil unrest in a community already experiencing major water shortages," USAID officials said in the proposal.
The White House rejected the funding proposal, according to an internal email from the National Security Council reviewed by NPR.
The U.S. ambassador to Israel supported the proposal, so as not to leave the infrastructure projects unfinished, according to a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss conversations he was intimately involved in.
The official said others in U.S. government agencies believe Jared Kushner, President Trump's point man for Israeli-Palestinian peace, was the one who blocked the initiative. A spokesman for Kushner did not immediately comment.
A tweak to the anti-terrorism act could permit Palestinian aid money to continue, but it is unlikely Congress would be able to amend the law before the funding cutoff goes into effect Feb 1. U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority security forces, which help maintain public safety in the West Bank, could also be cut under the law.
On Thursday, a USAID team drove over torn-up roads in the West Bank desert city of Jericho where they had installed pipelines to connect about 10,000 Palestinians' homes to a sewage treatment plant. "USAID Invests in Water Infrastructure," a colorful billboard reads.
But this investment is likely to be abandoned. U.S. officials say they'll pave the dug-up roads to avoid hazards, leaving the unfinished sewage system hidden underneath.
Jericho is in desperate need of the project, said Ehab Njoum, a municipal engineer. Only about 15 percent of the city is hooked up to a sewage treatment plant, he estimated. When most Palestinians in the city flush their toilets, the waste drops into private pits next to their homes. Sometimes these pits overflow, and there is a risk that untreated sewage can seep into and contaminate groundwater.
Jericho's Mayor Salem Ghrouf said he has never seen anything like what the U.S. is doing, "stopping funding for an important project like this one."
He added, "this is political pressure on our president, Mahmoud Abbas."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Last year, the Trump administration cut millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians. Now, in about two weeks, the U.S. plans to shut down its Palestinian humanitarian aid programs, abandoning infrastructure projects already underway. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: In the city of Jericho, most sewage goes untreated, so the U.S. Agency for International Development started building a sewer system. A Palestinian engineer, Ehab Njoum, showed me the dug-up roads where USAID installed pipes.
EHAB NJOUM: The project cannot be completed, and the sewer - it cannot be connected.
ESTRIN: It's because of a new U.S. law signed by President Trump in October. If Palestinians receive U.S. money, they could be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to families of American victims of past attacks. The Palestinian Authority says it fights attacks and won't accept the money under those terms. So all USAID programs for Palestinians are slated to end February 1. U.S. officials say the sewer system, which costs around $10 million, is mostly done, but it'll be left unfinished.
NJOUM: (Speaking in Arabic).
ESTRIN: In June, the engineer broke the news to Ola Saeed (ph), whose accessories shop is on the torn-up road. She'd been waiting for the sewer to be finished.
OLA SAEED: (Through interpreter) I wish they never dug. I wish they never said they would do something. At least we would have had clean roads.
ESTRIN: Jericho's mayor, Salem Ghrouf, says his city really needed that sewer.
SALEM GHROUF: (Speaking in Arabic).
ESTRIN: Most Palestinians in the city have private sewage pits next to their homes. And he says there's a risk that untreated sewage can contaminate groundwater. According to documents reviewed by NPR, U.S. officials tried to work around the new law to get money to finish the sewers and six other major school and water projects in the West Bank and Gaza. But according to the documents, the White House said no. A White House spokesman did not comment, but critics did.
DAVE HARDEN: I think to leave it just unfinished is a stain on American credibility. It seems irresponsible. It seems petty.
ESTRIN: Dave Harden oversaw U.S. aid to the Palestinians under the Obama administration. He said aid projects aimed to help create economic opportunity, alleviate suffering and help prepare the Palestinians for a future state. Now he says..
HARDEN: USA is frankly irrelevant in the West Bank and Gaza. And that's a shame because the United States can be and should be a shining beacon.
ESTRIN: Current and former U.S. officials say these projects were the last of the U.S. humanitarian aid for the Palestinians. The administration already cut more than half a billion dollars in annual aid last year, in part to pressure Palestinian leaders to cooperate with the U.S. on a peace plan it says will come in the coming months. In Jericho, U.S. officials are preparing to pave the roads over the new sewage pipes, leaving them disconnected.
Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jericho. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.