At first glance, the contention that a construction equipment company in Peoria, Ill., is implicated in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems strange. But earlier in July, the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States adopted a resolution that strongly criticized Caterpillar Inc., the manufacturer whose tractors, bulldozers and mining equipment help build and farm America, for its role in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.
The resolution, passed at the annual conference of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), called on Caterpillar to “carefully review its involvement in obstacles to a just and lasting peace in Israel-Palestine, and to take affirmative steps to end its complicity in the violation of human rights.”
The Presbyterian action was but the latest development in a multiyear campaign against the company for supplying Israel with construction equipment used in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, particularly a special militarized bulldozer used to demolish Palestinian homes and other buildings.
In protest of Caterpillar’s Middle East policies, the Church of England has divested its assets in the company — a measure also considered by PC(U.S.A.). Other organizations have engaged it through shareholder activism at the behest of opponents of the Israeli occupation.
But in a response to the Forward, Caterpillar strongly defended its sales to Israel, saying it could not monitor how its bulldozers and other machines are used. The company stressed that it does not militarize the bulldozers, called D9s, that are at the heart of the activists’ charges. That customizing is done by Israel.
Still, court documents make it clear that Caterpillar has sold its D9s to Israel via an American military program — and that the U.S. Defense Department has financed those sales, even as the U.S. State Department cites Israel’s use of those same D9s to demolish Palestinian homes as serious human rights concerns.
It’s a convoluted situation, one that allows Caterpillar critics to excoriate the company while Caterpillar stresses that it is making its sales under a program sponsored by America’s government.
According to the State Department’s 2009 human rights report on Israel, between 2000 and 2007, Israel demolished 1,626 buildings in areas of the West Bank that were under its full control. The report cites as its source the Israeli NGO Bimkom, which states that it compiled its count from government data.
As recently as July 19, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the Israeli army demolished about 55 structures in the West Bank village of Farasiya, including tents, tin shacks, plastic and straw huts, clay ovens, sheep pens and bathrooms. These structures served the 120 farmers, hired workers and their wives and children who lived in the Jordan Valley village.
Israel has defended the demolitions as actions taken within the context of Israeli law. Many demolished homes, particularly in East Jerusalem, lack proper building permits, though the State Department reports that Israeli laws and procedures make such permits difficult for Palestinians to obtain. Homes of suicide bombers are also demolished, although that practice has been suspended in recent years. And the army sometimes demolishes homes after declaring the land on which they sit to be part of a live-fire zone, as occurred in Farasiya.
Palestinians generally receive no compensation for the demolition of homes lacking proper planning permission, the State Department reports, though in some cases the families living in them had been residents since the 1950s. In some instances, it said, the families were required to pay the cost of the demolition.
No data were available detailing Caterpillar’s total sales of D9s and other equipment to Israel over the years. But according to documents submitted by the U.S. government in a federal court case, sales to Israel totaled $32.7 million for a single transaction of 50 D9 bulldozers in 2001.
Caterpillar’s D9’s have been employed routinely in Gaza and at times in the West Bank. Other Caterpillar machines are frequently among those used in West Bank and East Jerusalem demolitions, the construction of Jewish settlements and the erection of Israel’s controversial barrier separating Palestinians from Israel and many of its West Bank settlements. But it is not possible to ascertain the role of Caterpillar machines, if any, in each West Bank operation.
“Are they [Caterpillar] responsible for what the Israeli government is doing? Of course not,” said David J. Vogel, a professor of business ethics at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. “The connection is very tenuous. On the other hand, they’re a convenient target…. In some ways, their responsibility is beside the point. On some level it’s about politics.”
Tom Borelli, the director of the Free Enterprise Project at The National Center for Public Policy Research, dismissed Caterpillar’s critics. “A lot of activists have for years recognized the media attention they can get by attacking a corporation at a shareholder meeting and by generating headlines, but they’re no more responsible for the way their bulldozers are used [than] General Motors is responsible for a car. It’s just activism run amok.”
The campaign against Caterpillar first gained steam six years ago. In a November 2004 release, Human Rights Watch called for Caterpillar to end the sale of D9 bulldozers to the Israeli army. A report released by Amnesty International earlier that year made similar recommendations. According to HRW, the IDF used D9 bulldozers to destroy more than 250 Palestinian homes that year in Rafah, a city in Gaza near the border with Egypt. The IDF said at the time that some of the homes hid tunnels used for smuggling goods across the Egyptian border.
But the connection between Caterpillar and the IDF’s D9 bulldozers used in some of those demolitions is complex and, Caterpillar argues, indirect.
The stock version of the D9 is between 14 and 15 feet wide and 13 feet high, according to Caterpillar’s website. On one end is a bulldozer blade; on the other is a tool known as a “ripper,” to break up hard materials.
According to a report in Haaretz, the version of the D9 used by the Israeli army is fitted with a heavy machine gun and a bulletproof cabin, among other military modifications. But the only modifications Caterpillar itself makes for Israel are nonmilitary in nature, a spokesman told the Forward, such as adding attachments that allow the machines to be towed and an extra port for jump-starting it.
Nevertheless, in a filing in a 2006 court case brought against Caterpillar by families of civilians killed by IDF Caterpillar bulldozers, the U.S. government affirmed that the “equipment in question” — that is, Caterpillar’s D9 bulldozers — had been purchased by the Israeli military with American funds procured under the Defense Department’s Foreign Military Financing program.
Caterpillar declined to disclose whether it had made any more recent sales to Israel. And a Defense Department spokesman was unable to clarify whether the United States was funding any current purchases. The Israeli Embassy and Israel’s defense ministry did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Meanwhile, those opposing the demolitions have broadened their protests beyond the D9, which was used most heavily in Gaza. Home demolitions in East Jerusalem and often in the West Bank, they point out, are not carried out by militarized D9s but are sometimes accomplished using other Caterpillar equipment.
“Caterpillar is connected to everything that is connected to the land,” said Sydney Levy, director of campaigns for Jewish Voice for Peace, which has been active in the opposition to Caterpillar. “It’s connected to home demolition, it’s connected to building the wall, to building settlements.” Levy’s reference to the wall referred to the separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank that at points cuts deeply into the occupied territory and separates villagers from their farms.
In a statement sent to the Forward, the company strongly defended its sales to Israel.
“Understandably, Caterpillar cannot monitor the use of every piece of its equipment around the world,” the statement said. “However, we recognize the responsibility companies have to encourage the constructive use of their products. To that end, we do not condone the illegal or immoral use of any Caterpillar equipment, and consistent with Caterpillar’s Worldwide Code of Conduct, we expect our customers to use our products in [ways] consistent with human rights and the requirements of international humanitarian law.”
Asked how those expectations square with Israel’s use of Caterpillar bulldozers for purposes cited by the State Department as human rights problems, the company, in a follow-up statement, stressed: “The Caterpillar products used by the Israeli government are sold as part of a U.S.-Government sponsored program. It is best for governments to work to resolve issues such as the long-standing dispute in the Middle East, rather than having companies like Caterpillar become involved in trying to resolve such matters.”
Peter Rosenblum, a professor of human rights law at Columbia University Law School, doubted this would satisfy the concerns of Caterpillar’s critics.
“As long as [a product] is not inherently dangerous the issue would typically end there,” he said, but added: “At the point you become the sole supplier, the known supplier, the company counted on for that purpose … in what is one of the ugliest stories in occupation — legal arguments aren’t going to get them out of the problem.”
Reporter Sam Petulla contributed to this report.
This story "Caterpillar Caught in Web Of Middle East Politics" was written by Josh Nathan-Kazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.