What’s wrong with Caterpillar?

Although it’s easy to associate Caterpillar (CAT) with bright yellow construction equipment operated by Bob the Builder and his shiny yellow hard hat, this is not what we are calling into account.

The Caterpillar Corporation that we’re calling out is the corporation that sells military goods used to perpetuate human rights abuses and war crimes.


Check it out:

  • Caterpillar D9 and D10 bulldozers are manufactured to military specifications and sold to Israel through the Foreign Military Financing program, which oversees US military sales to Israel. These sales are actually purchased through US taxpayer money and given to Israel.
  • The Caterpillar website has in the past boasted that “Caterpillar provides the flexibility to respond to the specialized, unique needs of U.S. military and government agencies along with foreign militaries....We are also well staffed to design and manufacture high priority military modifications for our standard products, such as armor kits....”
  • Bulldozers sold to Israel are retrofitted with armor plating, machine guns, smoke projectors, and even grenade launchers, increasing the vehicle’s weight by 10 tons. A weaponized D9 bulldozer weighs approximately 64 tons.
  • The newest variant in Israel’s Caterpillar arsenal is the “unmanned” D9 bulldozer, operated by remote-control, codenamed “Dawn’s Thunder.”
  • Caterpillar equipment is so essential to Israeli military operations that the Israeli military has drafted plans to classify Israeli Caterpillar maintenance workers as reservist soldiers.
  • 23-year-old Evergreen senior Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by a D9 bulldozer in Rafah, as she was trying to protect the home of two Palestinian families. Israel claimed that the bulldozer did not run her over, contradicting all witness accounts. Moreover, Israel claimed that the home Rachel was protecting was not targeted for demolition. However, within a year, that house, along with the rest of the neighborhood, was flattened by Israeli-operated Caterpillar bulldozers.
  • In Jenin, an IDF Caterpillar bulldozer was in the process of demolishing the home of the Fayed family, unannounced. Most of the family was able to escape, but Fathiya Fayed and her daughter pleaded with soldiers to let them retrieve Fathiya’s son, 38-year-old Jamal, who was paralyzed and unable to leave the house. The family received permission, but while they were inside, the bulldozer resumed demolition. The family escaped without Jamal, who was crushed to death and killed.
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    Mahmoud al-Sho‘bi’s home in Nablus was demolished by a Caterpillar bulldozer, unannounced, thus killing al-Sho‘bi’s two sisters, his brother, his sister-in-law, their three children (ages 4, 7 and 9), and his 85-year-old father.
  • In Khan Yunis, a Caterpillar bulldozer began demolishing the home of Ibrahim Khalafallah. Khalafallah, who was in his seventies, was deaf and unable to walk. His daughter pleaded with the bulldozer driver that Mr. Khalafallah was still inside, but the bulldozer continued. Khalafallah’s crushed body was eventually found 20 meters from his demolished home.
  • Sixteen-year-old Mahmoud Kayed “was run over by [a] bulldozer when it lurched towards a group of youths throwing rocks at the vehicle during the army incursion in the Al-Bureij refugee camp.” (AFP, 20 Sept 2007)
  • These bulldozers are also used for extrajudicial killings by deliberately demolishing homes where targeted people are hiding. This tactic is referred to by the IDF as the “pressure cooker procedure.”
  • Military use of Caterpillar equipment is not limited to killing civilians, suspected militants, and homes. They have also been used to destroy vital infrastructure and livelihoods.
  • According to Human Rights Watch, “The Caterpillar D9 is the main IDF tool to demolish homes, structures, and agricultural areas in Gaza and the West Bank.”
  • During the 2008–9 Gaza invasion, Caterpillar bulldozers were used to systematically destroy the Gazan chicken farms. Sameh Sawafeary, whose family farms provided 35% of the egg market in Gaza, saw chicken coops flattened by the bulldozers. Sawafeary saw the bulldozer operators “spend hours flattening the chicken coops, sometimes stopping for coffee breaks, before resuming their work.” By the end of the invasion, about 100,000 of his family’s chickens were killed.
  • One IDF soldier gave testimony: “There was a point where D-9s were razing areas. It was amazing. At first you go in and see lots of houses. A week later, after the razing, you see the horizon further away, almost to the sea. They simply took down all the houses around so the terrorists would have nowhere else to hide. Among other things, whole chicken coops were taken down, on top of the chickens.”
  • Another soldier’s testimony: “Sometimes the company commander would give the D-9s something to demolish just to make them happy.” Interviewer: “Why, were they resentful?” Soldier: “No, but D-9s, you know… They have a hard time. They're your gofers. They do what they're told. So they love to demolish, and when the commander sends them off, ‘Go take down that house,’ they're happy.”
  • In the city of Rafah alone, from 2000 to 2004, 16,000 homes were demolished.
  • Human Rights Watch: “In both Tel al-Sultan and Brazil [refugee camps], the IDF used Caterpillar D9s to indiscriminately tear up roads, destroying water and sewage networks, and creating a significant public health risk in an already vulnerable community….In total, the IDF destroyed fifty-one percent of Rafah’s roads, usually by dragging a blade known as the ‘ripper’ from the back of the D9 down the middle of the road.”
  • For two days, “the IDF also systematically destroyed two large agricultural areas in Tel al-Sultan, both filled with greenhouses for fruits, flowers and vegetables. In total, D9 bulldozers razed 298 donums (29.8 hectares) of land. Satellite imagery shows the areas of greenhouses replaced by barren land.”
  • In a single day, the entire marketplace of the village of Nazlat 'Isa was razed by 15 bulldozers, destroying over 100 shops and 5 homes. The marketplace had been the commercial center for the region.
  • Israeli soldier Moshe Nissim bragged in the newspaper Yediot Aharanot about how he used his D9L bulldozer to turn the Jenin refugee camp into a soccer field:
    • "For three days, I just destroyed and destroyed. The whole area. Any house that they fired from came down. And to knock it down, I tore down some more. They were warned by loudspeaker to get out of the house before I come, but I gave no one a chance. I didn't wait. I didn't give one blow, and wait for them to come out. I would just ram the house with full power, to bring it down as fast as possible. I wanted to get to the other houses. To get as many as possible….I didn't give a damn about the Palestinians, but I didn't just ruin with no reason. It was all under orders….
    • "I didn't see, with my own eyes, people dying under the blade of the D-9. and I didn't see houses falling down on live people. But if there were any, I wouldn't care at all. I am sure people died inside these houses, but it was difficult to see, there were lots of dust everywhere, and we worked a lot at night. I found joy with every house that came down, because I knew they didn't mind dying, but they cared for their homes. If you knocked down a house, you buried 40 or 50 people for generations. If I am sorry for anything, it is for not tearing the whole camp down….
    • “As far as I am concerned, I left them with a football stadium, so they can play. This was our gift to the camp.”
  • An Israeli military senior officer, responding to the shock over the level of carnage produced during Israel’s 2008–9 invasion of Gaza, stated, "What did you think would happen? We sent 10,000 troops into Gaza, more than 200 tanks and armored personnel carriers, 100 bulldozers. What were 100 bulldozers going to do there?

What makes Caterpillar complicit in these actions?

Simply put, CAT knows. The Caterpillar Corporation has known for years how its products sold to Israel are used, but it refuses to accept responsibility.

As early as 2001, responding to complaints from human rights groups, Caterpillar spokesperson Benjamin Cordani stated, “We do not base sales on customer’s intended use for our product.”

In a letter to Jewish Voice for Peace, CAT CEO James Owens admitted that sales to Israel are “conducted through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales Program,” which “allocates funds to be used by foreign militaries in the purchase of American-made commercial products, of which Caterpillar products are included.” However, Owens claimed that “any comments on foreign policy or actions needed in the region are best left to our governmental leaders”—meaning that Caterpillar does not want to take responsibility for its own sales and its own profits from foreign countries with US taxpayer dollars.

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) has ridiculed CAT’s response as a “head-in-the-sand approach [that] ignores international standards on corporate social responsibility and the requirements of Caterpillar’s own code of conduct.”

In 2004, Jean Ziegler, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, informed Caterpillar that Israel was "using armoured bulldozers supplied by your company to destroy agricultural farms, greenhouses, ancient olive groves and agricultural fields planted with crops, as well as numerous Palestinian homes and sometimes human lives, and that "allowing the delivery of your D-9 and D-10 Caterpillar bulldozers to the Israeli army through the Government of the United States in the certain knowledge that they are being used for such actions, might involve complicity or acceptance on the part of your company to actual and potential violations of human rights."

Amnesty International has called on Caterpillar to “take measures—within the company sphere of influence—to guarantee that its bulldozers are not used to commit human rights violations, including the destruction of homes, land and other properties.”

According to HRW, Caterpillar has many options to take these measures, including “agreeing to abide by standards such as the U.N. Norms and refusing to participate in the FMS program with Israel or to reject sales to governments or other parties where there is a risk that the company's products will be used in the perpetuation of human rights violations.”

For several years, the issue of Caterpillar's complicity has been raised at its annual shareholders meeting. Even the parents of Rachel Corrie have provided testimony at these meetings. Activists (including members of Jewish Voices for Peace and a group of nuns) have become CAT shareholders in order to propose resolutions for CAT to review its bulldozer sales to Israel. These resolutions have been voted down with the encouragement of CAT’s Board of Directors. This means that CAT has repeatedly made a conscious decision to continue selling bulldozers to Israel without question and regardless of explicit descriptions of how their machines are used for criminal purposes.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Caterpillar betrays its stated values when it sells bulldozers to Israel knowing that they are being used to illegally destroy Palestinian homes. Until Israel stops these practices, Caterpillar’s continued sales will make the company complicit in human rights abuses.”

In fact, Caterpillar is violating its own Code of Conduct, which calls on the company to "avoid those who violate the law....Caterpillar accepts the responsibilities of global citizenship. Wherever we conduct business or invest our resources around the world, we know that our commitment to financial success must also take into account social, economic, political, and environmental priorities."

How will this action make Caterpillar change its ways?

CAT CEO James Owens claims that his company does “not have the practical ability or legal right to determine how our products are used after they are sold,” but he is lying. Caterpillar does try to control the use of its sold equipment—whenever it deems worthy.

In 2003, Caterpillar sued Walt Disney, attempting to block the release of the movie George of the Jungle 2, which Caterpillar felt portrayed its equipment negatively.

In the Disney movie, the character Lyle (think Israel) manages to steal the land deed to Ape Island (think Palestine), where George and his animal friends reside (think Palestinians). Lyle then sends Caterpillar earthmovers (think—um, think Caterpillar) to raze Ape Island. Caterpillar objected to the movie’s depiction of its equipment as being used for unethical purposes.

CAT filed a lawsuit and requested a temporary restraining order to prevent Disney from releasing the movie in the US. The lawsuit also demanded that Disney destroy all material offensive to CAT's reputation.

This demonstrates the extent to which CAT is concerned about negative publicity. Unfortunately, CAT has demonstrated more concern over how its equipment would be portrayed in a cheesy direct-to-DVD children’s comedy than over how its equipment is actually used to oppress an entire people.

The years-long international campaign to hold Caterpillar accountable hopes to correct that.

Related links

Razing Rafah: Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip (Human Rights Watch)

“I Lost Everything”: Israel’s Unlawful Destruction of Property during Operation Cast Lead (Human Rights Watch)

Under the rubble: House demolition and destruction of land and property (Amnesty International)

Operation “Cast Lead”: 22 days of death and destruction (Amnesty International)

Factsheet: Home Demolitions and Caterpillar (Center for Constitional Rights)

Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions

War on Want (UK) Caterpillar report

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