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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.

Over the objections of church groups, peace organizations and human rights activists, President Barack Obama decided to return to Illinois to visit the headquarters of the Caterpillar company, which for years has violated international law, U.S. law and its own code of conduct by selling its D9 and D10 bulldozers to Israel.   

In his speech on Thursday, Obama praised Caterpillar, saying, “Your machines plow the farms that feed our families; build the towers that shape our skylines; lay the roads that connect our communities; power the trucks that deliver our goods.”  He failed to mention that Caterpillar machines have been used to level Palestinian homes, uproot olive orchards, build the illegal separation wall and, in some cases, kill innocent civilians, including a 23-year old American peace activist. 

Given the slump in sales that forced Caterpillar to lay off thousands of workers, the company is emblematic of the problems facing industrial towns of the Midwest in the face of the worse recession in decades and was therefore seen as an appropriate place for Obama to make an appearance.  Yet surely there were other heavy equipment manufacturers, or other industries, he could have chosen to visit -- one which doesn't provide its wares for what have been widely recognized as crimes against humanity and is not the subject of an international boycott by the human rights community. 

The Caterpillar boycott has been endorsed by scores of church groups, peace organizations, and human rights groups.  Following enormous pressure from both clergy and laity, the Church of England announced three days prior to Obama’s visit that it had sold off $3.3 million in stockholdings in the company.  And, two days earlier, Hampshire College became the first American college or university to divest from Caterpillar.  Some have interpreted Obama’s visit as a rebuke to these recent gains in the international campaign against the Peoria-based corporation. 

Supplying Repression

More than 15,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories have been destroyed by Israeli occupation forces, the majority with Caterpillar bulldozers.  Most of these have been for clearance operations to make way for Israeli colonists and related occupation infrastructure, not for security reasons.  An estimated 50,000 Palestinians have been made homeless by Caterpillar bulldozers. 

Meanwhile, more than one million olive trees -- many centuries old and in the hands of a single family for many generations -- have been destroyed, mostly with caterpillar's heavy equipment. UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Jean Ziegler, in a letter to Caterpillar ‘s chief executive officer James Owens, argued that the Israeli occupying forces’ destruction of Palestinian agricultural resources “further limit[s] the sustainable means for the Palestinian people to enjoy physical and economic access to food” and constituted a clear violation of international law. 

Caterpillar bulldozers and other equipment have been used in the construction of Israel’s separation wall in the occupied West Bank, which has been declared illegal by a near-unanimous decision (with only the U.S. judge objecting) by the International Court of Justice. 

Caterpillar has not just been responsible for the destruction of Palestinian property and Israel’s illegal land grabs, however, but also for the deaths of nearly a dozen people, including an 85-year-old man, several children, and American peace activist Rachel Corrie. 

The Case of Rachel Corrie

In December 2001, as violent Palestinian protests against the then 34-year Israeli occupation increased -- along with Israeli repression -- the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for the placement of unarmed human rights monitors in the occupied territories. In response, a number of pacifist groups from the United States and Europe began to send their own representatives to play the role of human rights monitors, even to the point of physically placing their bodies between the antagonists.

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