Human Rights Watch (HRW) has joined the campaign to pressure U.S.-based heavy equipment maker Caterpillar Inc. to stop selling bulldozers to Israel’s military because it uses the machines to violate human rights in the occupied territories.
Monday’s appeal by HRW followed an exchange with Caterpillar Chief Executive Officer James Owens, which began three weeks ago when HRW in a letter called for suspending all sales of D9 bulldozers to Israel.
The group described the machines as the IDF’s (Israeli Defense Force’s) "primary weapon to raze Palestinian homes, destroy agriculture, and shred roads in violation of the laws of war."
"Caterpillar betrays its stated values when it sells bulldozers to Israel knowing that they are being used to illegally destroy Palestinian homes," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director. "Until Israel stops these practices, Caterpillar’s continued sales will make the company complicit in human rights abuses," she added in the letter.
New York-based HRW’s appeal Monday coincided with the announcement by a U.S. Jewish peace group that it had filed a shareholder resolution urging Caterpillar to review whether the sale of the D-9 bulldozer violates its own corporate code of conduct.
Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in San Francisco said it was the same resolution it had introduced, along with the Catholic Sisters of Loretto and the Mercy Investment Group, in 2003. That resolution received 4 percent of the shareholder vote.
But with HRW’s implicit endorsement, the resolution, which is also backed by the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), could garner greater support at the 2005 shareholder meeting, it predicted.
"Since we worked with the Sisters to file our resolution last year, Caterpillar has come under a huge amount of pressure for selling bulldozers to Israel that are used to demolish homes," said JVP Campaign Director Liat Weingart.
"Groups as varied as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the Presbyterians and Pax Christi, have all criticized Caterpillar for its sales of bulldozers to Israel. Groups within the Mennonite and Anglican churches are lobbying for them to take a stand as well," she added in a statement.
HRW’s appeal comes one month after it released a blistering report on Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in the southern Gaza strip.
The report, "Razing Rafah," found that IDF claims that such operations are dictated by military necessity were false and that the true intent appeared to be to expand the "buffer zone" between Gaza and Egypt to facilitate long-term Israeli control over the area.
The report, one of the hardest-hitting against Israel ever released by HRW, came in the wake of a 17-day IDF operation into the Jabalya refugee camp in central Gaza that left at least 110 Palestinians dead, about one-half of whom are believed to have been civilians. It was the biggest and most lethal IDF operation in Gaza in the last four years.
Some 70 Palestinian houses were totally destroyed and 200 others partially wrecked, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR). The report noted that IDF operations in Rafah over the past four years had rendered some 16,000 people or 10 percent of its population homeless.
Caterpillar CEO Owens responded to HRW in a Nov. 12 letter by asserting his company "did not have the practical ability or legal right to determine how our products are used after they are sold."
But the group called this a "head-in-the-sand approach" that ignores standards as defined in the United Nations Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises, which call on companies to not "engage in or benefit from" violations of international human rights, and to "ensure that the goods and services they provide will not be used to abuse human rights."
HRW further charged that Owens’ letter also ignored the company’s own Code of Worldwide Business Conduct, which requires Caterpillar to "take into account social, economic, political, and environmental priorities" in its business operations. The code also says the firm "accepts the responsibilities of global citizenship."
HRW noted that the D9 is made to military specifications as Caterpillar sells the bulldozer to Israel under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales Program. Once exported to Israel, the machines are armored by state-owned Israel Military Industries Ltd.
A 23-year-old U.S. activist, Rachel Corrie, was run over and killed last year by an armored D9 as she was trying to block it from destroying a Rafah home, and at least three Palestinians have been killed by the bulldozer and falling debris in the last two years because they were unable to flee their homes in time.
HRW noted that, in addition to displacing thousands of Gaza residents, the IDF’s use of the D9 has destroyed more than one-half of Rafah’s roads and damaged more than 80 km (50 mi.) of water and sewage pipes with a blade on the bulldozer’s rear known as "the ripper."
"We found no legal justification for the senseless destruction of infrastructure essential to the health of the civilian population," Whitson said, noting the IDF has claimed that bulldozing homes is necessary to uncover and destroy smugglers’ tunnels running from Egypt into Gaza.
HRW maintains that much less destructive and more effective means, such as seismic sensors, electromagnetic induction, and ground-penetrating radar, could be used instead.
(Inter Press Service)