Press sides with Caterpillar’s ‘right’ to sell tools of destruction to human rights violators

Palestinians flee from a Caterpillar D-9 demolishing a home in Rafah, 2004. (Photo: Khalil Hamra)

Press accounts in support of ‘poor’ Caterpillar, ranked #57 in the Fortune 1,000 corporate index with 2004 revenues of some $30 billion, and Israeli policies in general are limited to the second-tier intellectual press, mainly the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe.

The trouble centers around Rachel Corrie, a college student crushed to death by a Caterpillar-made, IDF-operated bulldozer in March of 2003 in the Rafah refugee camp, where she had traveled to protest razings. With Corrie’s death ruled an accident by Israeli officials and the three soldiers involved absolved by an Israeli military prosecutor, her family has sued Caterpillar, characterized by the Los Angeles Times as a “legal attack” against the company in an otherwise fairly straightforward March 20 account spelling out the allegations. The Corrie’s attorney, Jennie Green, is quoted as saying “Caterpillar purposefully turns a blind eye as to how their products are used” while a three-sentence Caterpillar statement follows, noting the company “shares the world’s concern over unrest in the Middle East” without a hint as to their culpability in such concerns, but unfortunately has “neither the legal right nor the means to police individual use of the equipment” they sell.[1]

Perhaps forgotten is a Human Rights Watch report published last November that refutes Caterpillar’s “head-in-the-sand” statement, which “ignores international standards on corporate social responsibility and the requirements of Caterpillar’s own code of conduct.”[2] HRW cites a new United Nations “document”, called the U.N. Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights, which says that corporations like Caterpillar “engage in or benefit from” human rights violations and calling on corporations to “seek to ensure that the goods and services they provide will not be used to abuse human rights.”

The HRW report notes that Caterpillar makes the IDF bulldozer of choice, the D9 model, “to military specifications” and sells them “as weapons under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales Program, a government-to-government program for selling U.S.-made defense equipment.” The report also cites other uses of D9 such as using “a blade on the bulldozer’s back known as ‘the ripper’ ” to destroy “more than 50 percent of Rafah’s roads” and damage “more than 40 miles of water and sewage pipes.” Human Rights Watch also reports the death of 3 Palestinians under the blade of the bulldozer during the last two years “because they could not flee their homes in time.” The Independent of London notes in an article published today that “Water wells, schools and hundreds of thousands of trees have been razed by the Israeli army” using Caterpillar equipment such as the D9, a note absent from U.S. press accounts.[3] These revelations seem fairly pertinent here, universally ignored as far as I’m aware.

Also ignored are the contents of a State Department report, repeated in a letter to the Corrie family by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, which noted the lack of a “thorough, credible and transparent” investigation by Israeli authorities.[4] The only mention I’ve found of the statement among U.S. press is in an apologist editorial appearing in the March 18th edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in which Robert Jamieson Jr. contends that Caterpillar is “free to do business with whomever it chooses” yet bothering to learn how its products are used and prevent it might be “admirable” from a “moral perspective” because it’s “smart public relations.”[5] In defending Caterpillar, Jamieson Jr. says “the real terrorist in Rachel’s death” was the IDF soldier at the bulldozer controls, a shockingly unusual admission rarely found in the U.S. press but understandable since it was written in defense of the almighty corporation, which is to be absolved of any responsibilities and concerns according to American cultural beliefs.

Not content to simply report Caterpillar’s profiteering at Palestinian expense, doctrine requires support for the occupation itself, dutifully provided by Los Angeles Times editors in article published yesterday.[6] Teresa Watanabe reports on a Caterpillar stockholder resolution protesting sales to Israel and lead by “four Roman Catholic orders of nuns” and the California group Jewish Voices for Peace. Lest you think Jewish and Roman Catholic support for Palestinian liberation is widespread, Watanabe quickly cites “several” Jewish organizations that are leading a “counter-campaign” against the resolution, saying it is “part of a broader movement that unfairly singles out” the occupier Israel “without holding Palestinians accountable for terrorism and other actions that have stymied the peace process.”

Statements like this have become the standard method of dealing with criticism for Israeli policies, serving to draw attention away from specific allegations with warnings of racist conspiracies against Jews. But in case you didn’t get the picture, Los Angeles Times editors spell it out several paragraphs later, artfully turning a lawsuit against Caterpillar into “divestment from Israel” at large, “rekindling a siege mentality and fears of anti-Semitism” during this “time of some progress in peacemaking”, followed by a statement noting “blatant bias against Israel” from a American Jewish Congress official.

Boston Globe editors join the chorus in a March 24 report, taking special care to include multiple statements from Israeli officials, who provide the standard line about destroying Palestinian homes as a way to “combat terrorism”, used to “target terror” and “not innocent civilians”, reported without noting such an easily refutable facade or any evidence, let alone quotes from any number of available groups who might refute the standard official line.[7] The Globe cites a Consulate General spokeswoman’s comment that in the face of a halt to razings, continuing to protest “proves that these activists are merely opposing Israel’s policies out of habit and vendetta”, presumably an implication of racism against Jews, joining the common refrain in such matters and offered without comment here. Paragraphs later we learn that although razings have officially stopped, “Israel deems that other conditions, including illegal building, nonownership of land, and criminal reasons, could warrant the demolition of a house.” The implications being what they are, we’re left with a distinct impression that Israel does what it likes in the Occupied Territories, and anyone who dares to protest such activities are naturally anti-Semites, and should be dismissed with repugnance.

The disregard for Palestinian life is palpable as Los Angeles Times and Globe editors lend support, apologist if not fully complicit, to the brutal and illegal Israeli domination of Palestine, using bitterly ironic phrases like “siege mentality” to describe not Israeli occupation policies but the supposed harsh treatment of Jews in this matter. And where, one wonders, are the concerns of “anti-Arabism” in press accounts? I doubt such a phrase even exists among the U.S. press, who prefer to grimly note the “rekindled” hatred of Jews while ignoring daily accounts, widely reported in Israeli press and other sources, of Palestinian death and destruction at the hands of Israeli occupiers. It’s interesting to note that media attempts to support Caterpillar complicity has been successful so far—company shareholders overwhelmingly voted down a proposal on 13 April (97 percent opposed) to simply review the company’s sales of bulldozers to Israel, another notable win for the corporate/state community.[8]

Dane Baker is a former editor turned media analyst, focusing on U.S. press treatment of American foreign policy issues. His work can be found on Bewildered Herd at, where this article was originally published.

1 Henry Weinstein and Laura King, “Activist’s Parents Sue Caterpillar, Inc.”, Los Angeles Times, March 20, 2005.
2 Human Rights Watch, “Israel: Caterpillar Should Suspend Bulldozer Sales”, November 22, 2004 (
3 Maxine Frith, “Parents of Peace Activist Killed by Israeli Bulldozer Target Caterpillar”, Independent (London), April 14, 2005.
4 U.S. Department of State report, “Israel and the occupied territories: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2004”, released February 28, 2005 (
5 Robert Jamieson Jr., “Bulldozers Don’t Kill People. People Do.”, Seattle Post Intellgencer, March 18, 2005.
6 Teresa Watanabe, “Jews Target Caterpillar Shareholder Effort”, Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2005.
7 Franco Ordonez, “Protesters Target Caterpillar Dealer”, Boston Globe, March 24, 2005.
8 Associated Press, “Caterpillar Won’t Probe Bulldozers’ Use”, April 13, 2005.

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