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Obama's Caterpillar Visit a Thumb in the Eye for Human Rights Activists

Caterpillar's equipment has been used to level homes, build Israel's illegal separation wall and, in some cases, kill innocent civilians.

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Among these volunteers was Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old student at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Of particular concern for her and her colleagues was the use of Caterpillar bulldozers destroying Palestinian homes and orchards.

On March 16, in the Rafah refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, Israeli occupation forces were preparing to destroy a series of homes, including that of a Palestinian pharmacist and his family.  Rachel was among a group of international observers who stood in front of the bulldozer as a form of nonviolent resistance against this illegal act by Israeli occupation forces. According to both Palestinian and American eyewitnesses, Rachel was standing in plain site of the bulldozer's driver. She was wearing a bright fluorescent orange jacket and had engaged the driver in conversation to try to convince him not to destroy the house. Nevertheless, after an initial pause, the Caterpillar bulldozer surged forward despite cries from Rachel's colleagues, trapping her feet under the dirt so she could not get out of the way before being run over. The Caterpillar bulldozer then backed up, running Rachel over a second time, mortally wounding her. She died in a nearby hospital a short time later.

Efforts by Rachel’s parents to sue Caterpillar were thrown out by a federal appeals court, where a panel of three judges argued that their suit could not have gone to trial “without implicitly questioning, and even condemning, United States foreign policy towards Israel.”

The Israeli government claimed that it was an accident.  Not only did the Bush administration accepted this interpretation and refused to call for an independent investigation, Rachel’s home state senators -- Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell – backed the Bush administration in denying that she was murdered, and refused to call for Congressional hearings. Soon thereafter, both threw their support behind an additional $1 billion in military aid to Israel. 

Four months earlier, the United States had vetoed a UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israel for the murder of three United Nations workers in two separate incidents in the occupied territories in December, 2002. Among those killed was British relief worker Iain Hook, who was assisting in the reconstruction of Palestinian homes destroyed during an Israeli military offensive the previous spring, also using Caterpillar bulldozers. This veto undoubtedly gave the Israelis the confidence that they could literally get away with murder, even if it involved a foreign national.

Now, in making his highly-public appearance at the Caterpillar headquarters, President Obama, taking after President Bush, appears to have also decided to come to the defense of these kinds of war crimes in the face of international criticism.

Breaking the Law

Caterpillar sells its bulldozers to Israeli occupation forces through the United States Foreign Military Sales Program.  Though originally designed for agricultural and construction purposes, the Israeli military modifies the Caterpillar bulldozers to include machine gun mounts, smoke projectors, and grenade launchers.  Caterpillar CEO Owens, praised by President Obama during his Thursday appearance, insists that his company has “neither the legal right nor the ability to monitor and police individual use of that equipment.” When confronted by human rights groups about the use of their equipment in violation of international humanitarian law, Caterpillar insists that “any comments on the political conflict in the region are best left to our governmental leaders who have the ability to impact action and advance the peace process.” 

Despite this claim by Owens and other Caterpillar executives that the company bears no responsibility for its equipment's end uses, the United Nations Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights explicitly states that companies should not “engage in or benefit from” violations of international human rights or humanitarian law and that companies “shall further seek to ensure that the goods and services they provide will not be used to abuse human rights.” 

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