WASHNGTON — The drive to stop an American company from doing business with Israel has received a prominent boost from a leading human-rights organization.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch is urging members to send letters to Caterpillar, a publicly traded heavy-equipment company located in Peoria, Ill., urging it to “immediately suspend” the sale of its D9 bulldozers to the Israeli military. The sample letter being circulated by the organization claims that the “the Israeli military uses the D9 as its primary weapon to raze Palestinian homes, destroy agriculture and shred roads in violation of the laws of war.”
In response to the letter-writing campaign, one prominent Jewish communal leader, Malcolm Hoenlein, is calling on Jews to “reconsider their giving” to Human Rights Watch. Hoenlein, the vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the human-rights group has a record of taking one-sided positions against Israel.
Israel has consistently maintained that its demolition of homes in the West Bank and Gaza is legally and morally justified as a part of its war on terrorism.
While the campaign to condition sales of American-made bulldozers to Israel is not new, the public endorsement of such a prominent organization is likely to give the movement a significant boost. Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said that the organization joining the campaign is generating a great deal of interest among human rights groups and activists internationally. “Many organizations around the world are calling about this,” she told the Forward. “Clearly there is a sense among people that they want to get at responsibility for the terrible situation in Gaza.”
Caterpillar, which argues that it cannot be held responsible for the way its customers use its products, was also the chief target of a divestment resolution passed in July by the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The campaign to stop Caterpillar sales intensified after the much-publicized March 2003 death of American peace activist Rachel Corrie in Gaza. Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli D9 bulldozer that was demolishing houses and tunnels in the town of Rafah. Israel says that the houses and tunnels were used to smuggle arms and explosives for Palestinian terrorists from Egypt. Supporters claim that Corrie was killed purposely, but Israel says that the man driving the bulldozer did not see her.
“The next time Human Rights Watch wants to know why the Jewish community calls it biased and one sided, they should look at what they are doing on this issue,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
In the past, Foxman said, officials at Human Rights Watch had asked for his help when some Jewish supporters withheld contributions because of the organization’s positions on Israel. “So before they come running to us or to other groups they have to look at themselves in terms of what they do and how they do it,” he said.
Foxman complained that the human-rights organization has only targeted Israel in such a way, even failing to adopt similar measures against weapons manufacturers who sell arms to dictatorial regimes. “When it comes to Israel, they have this activist approach,” Foxman said.
An Israeli diplomat in Washington refused to comment directly on the campaign against Caterpillar. “We prefer not to get involved in this,” the diplomat said.
Human Rights Watch rejects accusations of bias. In 2002, the organization published a comprehensive study of Palestinian suicide bombings, which it denounced as a “crime against humanity.” But out of 30 statements posted to its Web site this year devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only two were critical of Israel’s adversaries: One condemned the use of children as suicide bombers; the other denounced the killing of civilians at the bombing of the Taba resort in Egypt on October 7.
A spokesman for the organization said it had launched campaigns against big corporations that were running sweatshops in developing countries, but they could not remember a campaign where a company was urged to stop selling a product because that product was allegedly used to violate human rights. The abuse of specific products is usually difficult to prove, said the organization’s director of business and human rights, Arvind Ganesan. In the case of Caterpillar, he said, the evidence is clear.
The organization’s sample letter to Caterpillar Chair and CEO James Owens states: “The D9 is the IDF’s main tool to destroy civilian homes. Israeli soldiers often give Palestinians no warning before they crash the massive vehicle through the walls of their homes. The rear blade, known as ‘the ripper,’ tears up roads, pulling up water and sewage pipes. At least three Palestinians have been killed in recent years by the bulldozer and falling debris because they could not flee their homes in time.”
Caterpillar’s position is that it cannot dictate to Israel how to use the bulldozers, said company spokesman Jim Dugan. In a November 12 reply letter to Whitson, Owens wrote that his company did “not have the practical ability or legal right to determine how our products are used after they are sold.” Owens made the same point in a letter he sent last year to Rachel Corrie’s family. According to Caterpillar, its sales to Israel comply with America’s law and are conducted through the American government’s Foreign Military Sales program.
A resolution to stop company sales to Israel was defeated with 96% of the vote at an April shareholder’s meeting in Chicago. But the Jewish Voice for Peace, an Oakland, Calif.-based group that vigorously opposes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, announced last week that it intends to re-introduce the resolution at next year’s shareholders meeting.
The group, which runs a Web site dedicated solely to the Caterpillar campaign, contends that selling bulldozers to Israel for use by the Israeli military in the occupied territories violates the heavy-machinery manufacturer’s code of ethics. The code states that it “accepts the responsibilities of global citizenship” and pledges to “take into account social, economic, political and environmental priorities” as it pursues financial success.