Sunday, April 24, 2005

Caterpillar shareholders fail to pass resolution

From The Jordan Times:

It's said that “home is where the heart is”. It's also been said that “money makes the world go round”. For Caterpillar shareholders, the latter truism has taken precedence as shareholders voted on April 13 against a resolution that would have directed the heavy equipment manufacturer to investigate the use of its bulldozers by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes.

The resolution, which was voted down 97 per cent to three per cent, had been introduced by four Roman Catholic orders of nuns and the organisation Jewish Voice for Peace. Furthermore, groups from all over the world demonstrated to protest Caterpillar sales of home-crushing bulldozers to Israel. But none of that mattered as hopes were dashed that the shareholders would send a message that using Caterpillar equipment to abuse human rights is unacceptable.

Strangely, a visitor to Caterpillar's website is told: “Our goal is to be recognised as a profitable, innovative, well-managed industry leader with a strong focus on social responsibility and sustaining the environment.”

Among Caterpillar's accomplishments have been the preservation of rainforests. Sadly, its concern for saving rainforests does not translate into concern for the one million plus olive trees Israeli troops and settlers using Caterpillar equipment have uprooted during the current Intifada. This is in addition to the thousands of Palestinian houses demolished.

Despite US State Department criticism of such Israeli practices, not to mention compelling photographs and newspaper articles, Caterpillar spokesman Benjamin Cordani told this writer: “We do not and cannot base sales on a customer's intended use for our product. Caterpillar is a global company that provides products and services to companies and governments throughout the world. We follow the US government's direction on international sales and have a process in place to ensure we follow all laws and guidelines.”

That makes perfectly good business sense, of course, though it runs counter to the social responsibility on which Caterpillar prides itself: contributing to the “quality of life of all people” touched by Caterpillar. And it's true that there are no US laws pertaining to the export of earthmoving equipment.

Cordani went on to say: “Caterpillar checks the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and other governmental lists of individuals and organisations US companies are forbidden to do business with overseas.”

OFAC “enforces economic and trade sanctions based on US foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, and those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”.

That conversation was in 2001. Cordani refuses to take my calls now, as do other Caterpillar spokespersons. That's too bad because Middle East peace is no less in our national interests today than it was in then.

So let's look at a few statistics during the last four years regarding contributions towards Middle East peace, according to the respected Miftah human rights organisation: 1,085,063 olive trees uprooted; 2,305,286 dunums of land confiscated (4 dunums = 1 acre); 73,505 dunums razed; 7,708 houses demolished.

Sadly, house demolitions have been used as a form of collective punishment and ethnic cleansing for many years. The pretext generally has been that the demolished houses were built without permits. Of course, despite its sensitivity to the needs of growing Jewish families and illegal settlements, the Israeli government virtually never grants building permits to Palestinians — which can cost as much as $30,000 and take five years to obtain.

Furthermore, while targeting Palestinian houses for destruction, Israel has authorised massive housing construction, tax incentives, roads and related infrastructure for illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

When the excuse of permits wasn't used, “punishment” was. But according to a recent internal Israeli army review, it was acknowledged that the controversial policy of demolishing the houses of Palestinian suicide bombers wasn't working and only inflamed hatred. The practice has since stopped.

Common sense should dictate that confiscating land and building settlements would also inflame hatred.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticised Israel in unusually sharp terms recently, by warning that Israel's plans to expand an Israeli West Bank settlement were “at odds with American policy” and could threaten progress towards peace with the Palestinians at a critical moment.

Since shareholders didn't care about how Caterpillar D9 bulldozers are systematically used by Israelis to cause Palestinian suffering, they should have at least thought of American Rachel Corrie. Rachel was killed when an Israeli ran over her with a Caterpillar bulldozer as she tried to prevent a house demolition.

Good business stems from wise decisions. And continuing to sell bulldozers to Israel doesn't seem to be a wise decision. Obviously, the shareholders felt otherwise.

The writer is JD in international law and a political and media analyst in Mason, Michigan. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.