The Catepillar Effect

“This is the first time that bulldozers have determined the outcome of a war,” L., one of the Palestinian fighters from the Jenin refugee camp was recently quoted in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronot. The officer in charge of the military penetration into the camp affirmed L.’s claim, declaring in the same article that the D9 drivers had won the day. And indeed, every television station around the world showed graphic pictures of Jenin houses turned debris.

Human Rights Watch’s fact-finding team found that in contrast to other parts of the camp where armored D9 Caterpillars were used mainly to widen streets, in Hawashin district they razed the entire neighborhood. The Israeli military caused disproportionate destruction to the refugee camp’s civilian infrastructure, a senior Human Rights Watch researcher averred, adding: “The abuses we documented in Jenin are extremely serious, and in some cases appear to be war crimes.”

At least 140 buildings were completely leveled — many of them multi-family dwellings –while over 200 others were severely damaged, leaving an estimated 4,000 people, more than a quarter of the camp’s population, homeless.

Thirty-seven-year-old Jamal Fayid, paralyzed from his waist down, was one of the D9 casualties. According to the rights organization, he was crushed in the wreckage because Israeli soldiers did not allow family members to take him out of his home. The Caterpillar killed him.

D9 bulldozers were put to use in other places as well. In a report published by the Israeli rights group, B’tselem, one reads how Caterpillars were employed to destroy houses in Nablus’s old city in order to make way for Israeli tanks. When the military left the neighborhood six days later, Palestinians discovered that ten residents had been inside one of the houses when the demolition took place. 65-year-old Abdallah a-Sha’abi was rescued together with his 53-year-old wife; the rest were not so lucky.

Israel’s draconian demolition policy was not, however, invented in operation “Defensive Shield.” For many years now, D9s have been employed as a military weapon. Less than four months before the Jenin attack, some 58 houses were destroyed in Rafah, rendering at least 500 people homeless in the midst of a cold winter — 300 of whom are children.

The razing of houses in the past months, while unusual in its scale, is part of a long-term low-intensity warfare tactic that often escapes public attention. According to Jeff Halper, from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, “more than 7,000 houses have been demolished by Israel since 1967, leaving tens of thousands of Palestinians traumatized and homeless.”

The Israeli government and military is, to be sure, responsible for the demolitions, which are — according to today’s international legal framework — in many cases considered war crimes. However, without the big D9 bulldozers supplied by Caterpillar, it would have been very difficult to destroy the houses.

When Caterpillar began doing business with Israel, it could not have known that its products — which are manufactured for civilian use — would be employed to commit war crimes. Now, however, the corporation does know and insofar as it maintains a business as usual stance, it too is implicated in the violations.

It is interesting to note that the Israeli Supreme Court might very well agree with this assessment. In their sentencing of the Nazi-criminal, Adolf Eichmann, the Supreme Court Judges stated that “the extent to which any one of the many criminals was close to or remote from the actual killer of the victim means nothing, as far as the measure of responsibility is concerned. On the contrary, in general the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands.”

This truism gains new meaning in the age of globalization. Decisions made in one part of the world frequently affect another, and the process of identifying those responsible has become more complicated. The identity of violators does not only include state actors, like Eichmann, but also corporations, international financial institutions, and individuals. Finally, responsibility is not limited to those determining the policy, giving the orders, or carrying out the act, but extends to those who supply the perpetrators with the instruments of destruction.

Caterpillar should not necessarily stop all transactions with Israel, but it must introduce a new clause in its contracts to ensure that products are not employed to perpetrate human rights violations. Globalization offers new opportunities for corporations like Caterpillar, but these opportunities must have a price as well — the expansion of responsibility. A legal framework that calls attention to this type of responsibility is currently being developed, and while it remains difficult to enforce, the day will come when CEOs will stand trial for their support of and collaboration in war crimes.

Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, and can be reached at ngorodon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il



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Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies and the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate.

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