The killing of American activist Rachel Corrie on March 16, 2003, brought home the horrific realities of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. Fearing that a U.S. war in Iraq would spur an increase in Israeli violence, Rachel, a 23-year-old Olympia, WA native, chose to spend her winter quarter at Evergreen State College with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Rafah, a city in the southern Gaza Strip located along the border with Egypt. The ISM is a nonviolent movement based in the West Bank and Gaza Strip which brings human rights activists from around the world to join in solidarity with Palestinians resisting the effects of the Israeli military occupation.
In spring of 2003, many ISM activists were concentrated in the Gaza Strip in response to the launching of a widespread home demolition campaign in Rafah. Claiming that the Egyptian border city served as a conduit for interstate weapons smuggling, Israel began destroying hundreds of homes to clear a “seam zone” along the border. On March 16, 2003, convinced that the destruction of the homes of innocent people could never be justified, Rachel stood nonviolently between Dr. Samir Masri’s family home and a Caterpillar D9 bulldozer. Rachel wore a bright orange coat and pleaded through a megaphone for the soldiers to halt the demolition. The bulldozer did not stop, but instead drove over Rachel, crushing her body to death beneath its blade and wheels.
An Israeli criminal investigation into her death concluded that Rachel was killed by the rubble produced by the bulldozer and found no fault with the soldier operating the D9. However, eyewitnesses state that the operator indeed saw Rachel and intentionally plowed over her. Since 1967 the Israeli military has destroyed at least 10,000 Palestinian homes and left approximately 50,000 homeless. During the second Intifada, an estimated 2,370 Palestinian homes have been destroyed and several inhabitants killed in the Gaza Strip alone.
Contrary to statements made by the Israeli government, the majority of home demolitions are carried out for administrative and strategic purposes, such as seizing land for the separation wall and building more Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Last March, Rachel’s parents filed civil suit against the Caterpillar corporation in a Washington federal district court, claiming that the corporation knowingly aided and abetted Israeli war crimes and human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages and an order to enjoin Caterpillar sales of bulldozers until Israel stops its practice of home demolitions.
The Corries were joined in the complaint by five Palestinian families whose relatives were killed or wounded during home demolitions in which Caterpillar bulldozers were used. Caterpillar bulldozers have been used regularly by the Israeli military since the beginning of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, modifying them for military purposes by outfitting them with armor plating and weaponry such as machine guns and grenade launchers.
With the rising number of home demolitions over the past five years, American and international activists, concerned consumers, and several churches have urged Caterpillar to cease providing the Israeli military with bulldozers for home demolitions. The corporation has consistently defended its sales decisions on the grounds that it is not liable for what Israel chooses to do with Caterpillar products. There are many reasons why Caterpillar should be held responsible for its conduct.
Similar to the concepts of accomplice and “aiding and abetting” liability in American criminal law, international law considers complicity in human rights violations a crime. For instance, the Nuremberg Principles, which came out of the World War II war crimes tribunal, provide a strong legal basis for holding corporations accountable when they enable states to commit human rights abuses. In continuing to sell its bulldozers to the Israeli military, Caterpillar is directly profiting from gross human rights violations. It also makes good business sense for corporations to hold themselves out as strong defenders of human rights.
Corporate accountability is not a new concept. Since the early 1970s, more and more attention has been paid by consumers to the environmental, labor and human rights records of businesses. In response, many multinational corporations have adopted voluntarily codes of conduct and agreed not to conduct business with human rights abusing governments such as South Africa and Northern Ireland. Similarly, Caterpillar should make a commitment to consumers to stop supplying Israel with equipment used to commit international human rights violations. Unfortunately, these codes of conduct are self-imposed and self-enforced, leaving it to private citizens to pressure corporations to protect human rights at home and abroad. Fortunately, a national campaign against Caterpillar’s support of the Israeli occupation and home demolitions is gaining momentum.
At the same time, a growing number of Caterpillar’s shareholders are demanding that the corporation stop selling bulldozers to the Israeli military. And although the first stage of the Caterpillar lawsuit was not successful, the Corries and the Palestinian families are currently appealing the court’s decision. Because this is a relatively new legal frontier, the plaintiffs may be facing an uphill battle. However, as the public’s demand for corporate accountability increases, there is hope that multinational corporations will take steps to ensure that their products do not fuel human rights abuses.
Emily Schaeffer, UC Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall), J.D. Candidate 2006; Garrett Wright, UC Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall), J.D. Candidate 2007, Law Students for Justice in Palestine