The bulldozers that wreck Palestinian lives
June 28, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7
ERIC RUDER explains how the U.S. corporation Caterpillar provides Israel with weapons of terrible destruction, and reports on the efforts of pro-Palestinian activists to organize divestment campaigns targeting Caterpillar and other companies.
TEN MINUTES. That's all the time that Israeli officials gave Saleem Shawamreh to get his family and belongings out of his home. They came without warning, issued the ultimatum--and then used two Caterpillar D9 bulldozers to flatten his house.
Shawamreh stood nearby with his wife, Arabia. "Seeing your home destroyed is like losing a life," he said. "It is a terrible thing." And Shawamreh should know. This is the third time in four years that he has had to stand by and watch as military authorities demolished his house.
Since 1967, Israel has demolished more than 7,000 residences in the West Bank and Gaza, leaving about 50,000 Palestinians homeless. But the pace has quickened since the new Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, began in September 2000.
The usual excuse is that the demolished homes didn't have construction permits. In fact, different building "regulations" for Palestinians and Israelis are a cornerstone of Israel's apartheid system. By denying permits to Palestinians--while authorizing massive construction projects and tax incentives for Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories--Israel hopes to squeeze Palestinians onto ever-smaller bits of land. House demolitions are designed to break up concentrations of Palestinians and clear the way for the ever-expanding settlements--in direct violation of international law.
Caterpillar bulldozers are used for more than house demolitions. Since the Intifada began, Israeli troops and settlers using Caterpillar equipment have uprooted an estimated 385,000 olive trees--not to mention orchards of dates, prunes, lemons and oranges. The economic hardship this has imposed on thousands of Palestinians comes on top of already dire levels of unemployment and poverty in the Occupied Territories.
Meanwhile, whenever a "suitable" pretext presents itself, Israeli troops use bulldozers to inflict "collective punishment." In January, for example, Israeli forces destroyed more than 60 homes in the Gaza refugee camp of Rafah, leaving more than 600 Palestinians homeless.
Even Israel's mainstream Ha'aretz newspaper described the demolitions as "destruction on a systematic, collective, and indiscriminate level against innocent civilians, whose only sin was the place where they lived."
But the height of Israel's barbarism was reached during its April offensive in the Jenin refugee camp. In a little more than a week, at least 140 buildings were flattened and 200 more severely damaged, leaving an estimated 4,000 people homeless--more than a quarter of the camp's population.
"The alley was just three feet wide before the Israeli army sent its heavily armored Caterpillar D-9 down what is now a rutted track," Time magazine reported. "As you walk along it your feet raise little puffs of dust from the rubble of what were once concrete homes. The path is covered with the litter of war--broken sea-green ceramic tiles, a punctured cooking-gas cylinder, a thin foam mattress, a blond-haired baby doll."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon--whose nickname is "The Bulldozer"--hoped that the April offensive would deal the Palestinian resistance a death blow. He was wrong--just as he was wrong three decades ago when he ordered hundreds of homes bulldozed in Gaza.
The Palestinian resistance continues. It needs our support. By raising the connection between Israel's assault on Palestinians and U.S. corporations like Caterpillar that provide the tools, we can expose U.S. backing for Israel's dirty, colonial war.
Here's what you can do:
--Call on Caterpillar to stop selling bulldozers to Israel. Write to Caterpillar Corp., 100 N.E. Adams St., Peoria, IL 61629. Telephone: 309-675-1000. Fax: 309-675-4388. E-mail CEO Glen Barton: [email protected]
--If you're a student, find out if your school invests in Caterpillar. Build a divestment campaign with petitions, leaflets, speak-outs and pickets.
--Organize a picket at Caterpillar's corporate offices. Go to www.caterpillar.com on the Web for a list of locations.
The last divestment struggle
DIVESTMENT WAS a central demand of the 1970s and 1980s movement in solidarity with Black South Africans fighting the racist apartheid regime. People in the U.S. who were outraged by the barbarism of white minority rule rightly saw the effort to get U.S. institutions to cut their ties to South Africa as a concrete form of support.
Apartheid depended on the backing of the U.S. government. Few American political leaders openly embraced the South African racists, but most were content to mouth phrases about the need for change--while maintaining the behind-the-scenes connections that kept apartheid going. The determination of anti-apartheid activists changed this.
The solidarity movement in the U.S. hit a high point in the mid-1980s--in response to the explosion of Black struggle in South Africa's workplaces and townships. In particular, college students adopted the call for divestment, demanding that their schools get rid of investments in corporations that did business in South Africa.
On April 4, 1985, students at Columbia University in New York City blockaded a classroom building. What they had expected to be a brief protest involving a few dozen people lasted for weeks, with hundreds participating. In a matter of weeks, the example of Columbia inspired action at literally hundreds of campuses across the country.
Coming in the middle of the Reagan decade, the movement showed that--in spite of the seeming apathy of the times--tens of thousands of people wanted to take a stand against racism.
Although few universities were actually forced to fully divest, the struggle had an impact. By the fall of 1985, Ronald Reagan had to abandon his see-no-evil policy of "constructive engagement" and impose sanctions.
The measures were mostly toothless, but they came as U.S. banks were withdrawing loans, sparking a financial crisis. The racists never again ruled with the same confidence.
Cat's war on workers
CATERPILLAR FOUGHT an aggressive war on its own U.S. workers, represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW), during the 1990s.
Management went to the wall in two bitter strikes in 1991-92 and 1994-95 in an explicit attempt to break the back of union power. Because of years of struggle and the power of the UAW, Cat workers had managed to win decent job security and solid wages.
But when the union's contract expired in 1991, management demanded concessions. UAW members were ready for a fight to defend their jobs. Unfortunately, union leaders weren't--and ultimately ended the strike after six months, when management threatened to hire scabs.
The bosses kept up their assault, and pressure from workers forced the union to call a second strike in 1994. The UAW won a string of "unfair labor practices" charges against management, but the company managed to keep up production with scabs--and raked in record profits.
At the end of 1995, union leaders again told strikers to go back to work without a contract. But 12 Cat workers didn't return--they had committed suicide during the 17-month-long walkout.
Management set out to harass and humiliate UAW members. More than 100 workers were disciplined for such "crimes" as wearing a union T-shirt, refusing to shake hands with scabs or for even saying the word "scab."
Yet UAW members continued to reject Cat's miserable contract proposals--until they won back the jobs of workers fired during the strike.
The effort to expose Caterpillar for its support of Israel's reign of terror is part of the fight to win a better life for Palestinians--and for workers in the U.S.