From the point of view of a water engineer involved in emergency relief efforts, the latest Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has been devastating. The IDF’s April takeover of the West Bank resulted in a total of $342M in physical damages, $7M of that in the water sector alone. Running water was prevented from reaching hundreds of thousands of people for up to two weeks at a time. Most of this destruction was carried out by armed bulldozers, and has resulted in Israeli and Palestinian groups calling for a halt to sales to Israel by their manufacturer, Caterpillar Inc.
It’s the latest component of a larger divestment campaign against companies supporting Israel’s military efforts. Following on the heels of much of the Arab World’s boycott of American products, and British supermarkets’ ban on illegal settlement products, the campaign against Peoria, Illinois -based Caterpillar will be launched August 7th in Washington.
Caterpillar D-9 bulldozers have become such an active part of the IDF’s activities that the term “D-9” is as common to schoolkids here as “Apache” or “Cobra” helicopters, or the much more terrifying “F-16” fighter jets. The official IDF website documents their main purpose - home demolition. Following air or artillery-strifing of a residential neigbourhood, the D-9s move in under cover of infantrymen shuttled in on armoured personnel carriers. The dozers (or, in some cases, pneumatic breakers) then demolish the homes, proceeding from the second floor to the first. The whole operation takes from 30 minutes to three days, depending on its scope and intensity.
It was these bulldozers that we heard back in April as our UN convoy was blocked by IDF tanks from delivering food and medicine on the edge of Jenin refugee camp. We didn’t realize it at the time but the homes to over 3000 people were being destroyed right next to us. This fact is disputed by no one. A lesser-known fact, apparent to us only three days later when the forces temporarily redeployed, was the D-9’s role in the massive infrastructure destruction.
The D-9 is on high-end of Caterpillar’s track-type bulldozer line, originally designed for large earthworks projects and in common use throughout the world. In Israel, they are built or retrofitted with steel armour plates, tiny bullet-proof cabin windows, special blades and buckets optimized for concrete demolition and a powerful asphalt-ripper in the rear. The resultant powerhouse machinery towers over standard-size backhoes and other equipment and is the tool of choice for destroying electrical grids, digging up buried water and sewage services, taking out shopfronts and demolishing cars. The results are impressive - according to the World Bank/Donor’s Support Group damages sustained in one month alone under bulldozers ($342M) exceeds the World Bank estimate of $300M in damages (mostly from aerial bombardment) during the first fifteen months of Intifada.
Investigating the damages to municipal water supplies in particular, the nature and extent of the IDF action becomes clear: a) systematic digging of trenches across main roads, thereby disrupting water and sewermains and telecommunication lines to all homes in the affected neighbourhood (approximately 30,000m of pipe in all); b) intentional or collateral damage to pumping facilities (primarily booster pumps located throughout the network); c) intentional destruction of water transmission lines from wells located outside the city limits (in the case of the Beit Dajan wells feeding Nablus, the transmission line has been destroyed and repaired ten times); d) obstruction of municipal crews from carrying out emergency repair work (one city worker shot in the shoulder in Nablus, a well operator taken hostage twice in Jenin, etc.), and e) denial of international humanitarian organisations from providing assistance (food, medicine, bottled water) to needy civilians (in Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem, Qalqilya).
The civilians affected by all of this responded much as city dwellers here in North America would - people stored water in ad-hoc reservoirs, rationed it to the point of re-using and sharing toothpaste rinse and disposed of excreta in cardboard boxes in a corner of their appartment. While a few reported cases of dehydration were unconfirmed, the more significant risk was of water-related hygenic diseases.
These IDF methods fall squarely into the category of collective punishment. Being associated with such behaviour is perhaps what the executives at Caterpillar Inc. fear most, and may indirectly contribute to the success of the campaign. As sales to Israel are but a tiny fraction of CAT’s worldwide business, no American jobs are expected lost - the purpose of the campaign, afterall, is not to bring down Caterpillar. It is a protest against direct American involvement in the suffering of innocent civilians and the perpetuation of violence. It also serves as yet another call - echoed by all humanitarian aid workers - for an international presence on the ground to mediate the killing and destruction, to permit the start of real negotiations.