The parents of a U.S. peace activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer built by the global machinery giant Caterpillar confronted the company Wednesday for the first time and urged shareholders at its annual meeting to end sales of "weaponised bulldozers to Israel".
Cindy and Craig Corrie, parents of the late Rachel Corrie, attended the meeting as proxy voters on behalf of Jewish and Christian institutional investors who have filed a resolution asking for greater corporate accountability from Caterpillar.
Activists supporting the parents who lost their daughter in 2003 say that the company sells machinery to the Israeli army in violation of its corporate accountability pledge and knowing full well that the equipment will be used for the destruction of Palestinian homes and farms.
"We are part of a growing movement for corporate responsibility in the United States," said Matt Gaines of the STOP CAT campaign in a telephone interview from outside the shareholders' meeting in Chicago.
"Getting the U.S. government to take action on this issue has been very, very difficult, even though we are still working on it. But we are taking it directly to the corporations involved that are sponsoring, aiding or abetting war crimes," he said.
Caterpillar has become the poster child for U.S. companies that are being targeted in divestment drives for their role in human rights abuses by the Israeli army in occupied Palestinian land. It has said in the past that it bears no responsibility for how its products are used by clients. Spokespersons from the company were not immediately available for comment on Wednesday.
Rachel Corrie was killed in the town of Rafah while she and other members of the International Solidarity Movement were trying to stop the demolition of a Palestinian house in the Gaza Strip on Mar. 16, 2003.
Caterpillar, Inc. built the nine-tonne bulldozer that ran over Corrie, a 23-year-old college student from Olympia in Washington State. Her death made international headlines and triggered widespread condemnation. Israeli courts have yet to prosecute anyone for the incident.
The Illinois-based Caterpillar, which had annual sales and revenues of 36 billion dollars last year -- more than half from overseas business -- has been reluctant to disclose how much money it makes from its dealings with Israel.
Peace activists estimate that since Israel occupied Arab land in the 1967 war, Caterpillar bulldozers have illegally razed the homes of more than 50,000 Palestinians. They say that in the past five years alone, Caterpillar equipment was used to uproot over one million olive trees owned by Palestinians.
The U.S. company has been repeatedly singled out by international human rights bodies such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for complicity in rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian land.
But it is the divestment campaign -- mostly led by Christian institutional investors, including the Presbyterian Church USA, the World Council of Churches, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland -- that has most alarmed right-wing pro-Israel groups and the company.
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a right-wing Zionist organisation, says that Corrie and other peace activists were hindering the army's work to track down suspected terrorists and weapons smugglers.
Peace activists counter that as well as homes and roads, the Israeli army destroys olive trees, farmland and even water wells, hardly hideouts for terrorist suspects. They point to a number of actions that have aimed to muzzle publicity given to Corrie's death.
Recently, a play about Rachel Corrie's life that had two successful runs in London was banned from the New York Theatre Workshop after protests from some Jewish groups.
Copies of the play, composed of letters and journal entries, and titled "My Name is Rachel Corrie", were taken off bookshelves and only a few are now available in the United States, the campaigners say.
And when Corrie's parents called on the State Department to investigate the killing, their plea was rebuffed.
Writing in the conservative Jerusalem Post, Elwood McQuaid, a self-styled "Christian Zionist" who served as the executive director of The Friends of Israel Ministry in the U.S., characterised the corporate responsibility campaign as part of a leftist conspiracy.
"What is at issue here has little to do with moral justice; but it has much to do with radical, liberal, leftist obsession," the pastor wrote.
His words have not dissuaded Christian groups from discussing the issue further on Christian and moral grounds. An intense debate is going on in Birmingham, Alabama where thousands of delegates to the Presbyterian General Assembly are to decide on future steps in their divestment drive.
Christian Zionist groups have also argued that divestment is the wrong approach and called for more investments to build neighbourly relations between Palestinians and the Israelis.
But last week, the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus of the Presbyterian Church said in a statement that while a positive investment strategy can be constructive, it fails "to stop the Israeli government from confiscating Palestinian property and expropriating Palestinian land".
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