BDS and Workers’ Unity are Crucial in Maintaining International Solidarity for Palestine

PEORIA, ILLINOIS — The corporate website proudly informs its readers:

At Caterpillar, we are committed to respecting internationally recognized human rights throughout our global operations. While this policy is uniquely our own, we considered principles described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work in its development.”

Palestinians would beg to differ. And so too should U.S. citizens, says Lawrence Maushard, a journalist and activist from the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions Movement (BDS), who organizes protests just outside Caterpillar Inc.’s (CAT) traditional headquarters, now its main management structure, in Peoria, Illinois. As Maushard notes:

CAT has knowingly sold its bulldozers and other heavy equipment to the apartheid Israeli military and its front agents for decades. Bulldozers typically get weaponized and are used to destroy Palestinian homes, businesses, farms, property and lives against all international laws governing an occupying power.”

Israel buys CAT equipment from the U.S. military aid allocated budget. The vehicles are also used in extrajudicial killings: the “pressure-cooker” procedure, which is an escalating series of violent maneuvers ending with bulldozers demolishing a house with people inside it, is described in detail in a Who Profits report.

A CAT bulldozer was also used to murder U.S. peace activist Rachel Corrie as she protested, along with other International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteers, the demolition of a family home in Gaza in 2003. In full view of the bulldozer, standing on a mound of earth, Corrie “disappeared from view under the moving earth” as the machine was driven forward, further than where she had been standing, before reversing. The Israeli military absolved the driver of all culpability.

Rachel Corrie, shortly before she was crushed to death by an Israeli Army bulldozer in 2003. Photo | ISM

Israel is violating human rights using CAT equipment, yet the company continues to provide the machinery, which is bought with U.S. money.

Following his visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in April and May this year, mostly in the heart of the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, Maushard witnessed and experienced threats by the Israeli occupation forces firsthand. The Great Return March protests were ongoing and while snipers were killing Palestinians on the Gaza border, the Israeli police were disrupting the protests against the U.S. Embassy being moved to Jerusalem — an event attended by Jared Kushner, to whom the restarting of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has been entrusted by U.S. President Donald Trump. Maushard recalled:

We were attacked by long lines of Israeli police who beat and arrested at least 40 demonstrators, but we stood our ground with the chaos and unprovoked violence swirling around us. I created a hand-lettered sign proudly held by myself and my Palestinian friends, “Israeli Guns, U.S. Pay, Gaza Murdered, Every Day!!”

Maushard also joined the peaceful protests in Bethlehem commemorating the Nakba. The protestors, including Maushard, were treated by street medics for tear gas-induced injuries.

I ran up to the very front line of the protesters holding a long horizontal banner held by twenty or more protesters. It was the only honest place to be. The only thing between myself and the apartheid fascist guard were a few international press photographers wearing gas masks pointing their cameras directly at us while they tried to protect themselves, backed up against light poles and other concrete barriers. As we neared the line of Israelis, I saw a puff of smoke from an armored vehicle and tear gas canisters began flying in behind our front line, right into the peaceful crowd, youths and seniors among us, for maximum scattering effect.”

Maushard’s visit coincided with the month of Ramadan, marred by the sniper killings on the Gaza border as Palestinians protested for their legitimate right of return. In the occupied West Bank, Palestinians seeking to pray in Al-Aqsa were being harassed by Israeli soldiers:

Israeli soldiers were massed at the Lions Gate, some training weapons on the crowd, some filming the people, all on higher ground for everyone to see for maximum intimidation affect. I could feel the seething tension among the barely contained crowd and the uncertain vastly outnumbered soldiers, as if an unimaginable chaotic nightmare was ready to explode. People were passing out and collapsing in growing numbers from heat exhaustion with no medical or water stations in sight.”

Back in Peoria, Maushard penned an op-ed that was published in the daily local newspaper, in which he related his experiences in occupied Palestine, as well as how the U.S. government is funding Israel’s colonial and military occupation of Palestine, and the importance of BDS. The next step, Maushard said, was to organize a protest outside the headquarters of Caterpillar Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of heavy equipment and player of a crucial part in aiding Israel to displace Palestinians from their homes and demolish their dwellings.

At the rally Maushard and the other activists demanded a change in CAT’s policies. Maushard wrote:

In the public rally, we demanded that CAT changes its policies. We were a small band of local activists, Rachel Corrie’s parents and myself. I made contact with Chicago and St. Louis Palestinian groups, but none of them attended. No local Palestinians, and vast majority of local human rights advocates also did not attend, either too afraid or too indifferent to show. However, the Peoria NBC and CBS television affiliates sent news crews, interviewed the Corries, and covered the serious and somber protest well.”

Absence of awareness and opportunities for profit

Maushard observes that U.S. history is still not taught in a comprehensive manner in American public schools, especially the labor movement struggles. He stresses the importance of connecting CAT’s support of Israel’s apartheid policies and demolitions of Palestinian homes to the history of the company itself, and the violations committed against U.S. workers and their land ownership. Zionism, he says, seems “forged into the DNA of Caterpillar Inc. The blood money is very profitable, for sure. But then I remembered the history of the company itself.” He continues:

During the Great Depression 1930’s when American workers in some locales experienced starvation and malnutrition due to the collapse of a completely unregulated financial system, Caterpillar sold financiers, absentee property owners, and financial institutions its immensely powerful machines to plow under, ‘tractor out,’ the housing of thousands of remaining poor tenant farmers and agricultural workers.”

Maushard quotes Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck:

A twitch at the controls could swerve the cat’, but the driver’s hands could not twitch because the monster that built the tractor, the monster that sent the tractor out, had somehow got into the driver’s hands, into his brain and muscle, had goggled him and muzzled him — goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest.”

In more recent history, during the 1980s and 1990s, Maushard mentions that CAT fought a long series of bitter labor wars with its hundreds of thousands-strong rank-and-file United Auto Workers union membership:

CAT refused to share its huge growing profits with the union workforce any more than was absolutely necessary to their thinking. Striking workers walked the picket lines for months and years without any real gains, as thousands of workers were replaced by lower-wage employees or never went back to the factories being forced long before to move away for anything that would pay something more than the low strike benefits.”

Striking United Auto Workers from Caterpillar march in Chicago, August 5, 1994 to protest company mistreatment. Charles Bennett | AP

The underlying factor is profit. Maushard describes CAT has having always been “a terrible foe of labor.” This, he says, “goes hand in hand with its terrible support of apartheid Israeli Zionist human-rights abuses.” He concludes:

CAT got to its position as a world-leading manufacturer on the backs of its underpaid workforce. So it’s no wonder CAT management cares nothing about how its equipment is used in grievous human-rights abuses by apartheid Israel.”

“Workers rights are human rights”

Maushard is adamant that the Palestinian struggle has much in common with the workers’ struggle worldwide. Palestinians face an incomparable deterioration brought by the ongoing colonization and ethnic cleansing of their land by Israel, supported by the U.S. However, bringing the workers’ struggle into focus should foster an international solidarity that can stand up to the companies that violate rights as part of an entrenched routine system. He states:

I was born and raised in the state of Illinois, home of the great city of Chicago where the term ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ originated with the Industrial Workers of the World. Chicago is also the home of the 1886 Haymarket Affair, which led to May Day workers’ rights events worldwide, and a multitude of hard fought rights like the eight-hour day.

This history has enabled me to see that there is no difference between the working men and women of America and the working men and women of occupied Palestine.”

Maushard reflects that awareness of the struggles faced at home are key to expanding political horizons and developing internationalist solidarity with Palestinians. Besides pushing back against the attacks on organized labor since the 80s under the Reagan administration, human-rights movements are campaigning against the violations unleashed by Trump:

These people are now infusing labor with expanded new energies which naturally link up with Palestinian rights because of an ever widening international awareness. I see a bright future here for American labor to finally and firmly embrace Palestine independence as the human rights community fills more union membership roles. We need to encourage that growing trend.”

British trade union members hold signs expressing solidarity with Palestine. Photo | Rod Leon

In the U.K., he says, there is a possibility for a political platform, while in the U.S. support for the Palestinian cause among unions is slowly gaining traction:

Organized labor should always make common cause with Palestinians. The U.K. Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn understands this and has pledged, if elected, to freeze future British arms sales to apartheid Israel, and that Britain will immediately recognize a Palestinian state.

American labor has so far largely failed to take up the Palestinian cause, with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations [being] generally pro-Israel. But in recent years, more and more unions and individual AFL-CIO chapters are explicitly supporting Palestinian rights while criticizing continued apartheid Israeli human-rights abuses.”

Reversing fear

Maushard cites fear as a prime reason why the U.S. public is reluctant at times to show solidarity. The fear of losing what one possesses makes people reluctant to take a stand against big corporations. Yet, he says, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is also dependent upon the gestures that do not attract media attention. Individual efforts to boycott Israel are just as important as the collective efforts in the form of protests that push towards boycott and divestment from Israel:

We didn’t have a great public attendance at our BDS on Caterpillar rally, even among local Palestinians and the human-rights community here. They were incredibly scared to make a stand in the streets, even in America. But that’s okay, because BDS offers a private and meaningful way to support Palestinians by making apartheid Israel scream financially.

Whether you say why or not, refuse to purchase anything you know was developed or manufactured in Israel — such as software programs and apps, all agricultural products like fruits and veggies, SodaStream home drink products, Ahava cosmetics, Sabra hummus, Hewlett Packard computers and software, and of course Caterpillar itself. There are many more Israeli, Middle East and international firms supporting apartheid Tel Aviv but the firms just noted are high-priority targets selected for maximum BDS impact.”

Lawrence Maushard speaks at a rally in front of Caterpillar headquarters in Peoria, Illinois, July 21, 2018. A photo of Rachel Corrie rests in the foreground and Corrie’s parents are seen holding signs in the background. Photo | Chris McGuire

Raising awareness is important but, Maushard insists, BDS can also be implemented on an individual level:

Make sure your investments like mutual funds do not participate in Israeli firms or financial instruments. Personally, I have never and will never take a plane flight into or out of Tel Aviv. Never. Fly to Amman and travel overland. That might be inconvenient, but I think it makes an important statement: ‘I refuse to use your apartheid airport dedicated to Zionist war crimes, expansion and propaganda.’”

BDS is hurting apartheid Israel, Maushard remarks, adding:

That’s why several U.S. states have actual and pending laws attempting to criminalize BDS activities. That’s the best measure of effectiveness. If BDS didn’t work, the Zionist-friendly American political system would not be attacking it.”

Divisions among the U.S. population, Maushard says, come down to those having an openly hostile attitude and those with a basic lack of knowledge. The latter, once aware of the consequences wrought through supporting certain policies, are willing to adjust their perceptions and BDS has the potential to achieve this:

I talk with a lot of people here in the U.S. who knew nothing about CAT’s position toward apartheid Israel and the Palestinians. Once informed, you can tell they understand the right and wrong of it. Whether they might demand action or at least honor the BDS position on CAT is something else again.”

Maushard considers raising awareness about the bloody web of profit and governments an incumbent duty:

We have to remind people that Washington’s blind support of apartheid Israel is a continuing war crime that’s got to stop. If we keep the awareness of Israeli crimes against humanity front and center, the American public will be forced to finally disown and condemn and stop our funding of Zionism. To bring awareness that anti-Zionism does NOT in fact equal anti-Semitism. Once that happens, a free and independent Palestine will have a real chance.”

Top Photo | A Palestinian man tries to stop an Israeli Caterpillar bulldozer from demolishing the Palestanian village of Deir Qaddis, near Ramallah, July 13, 2016. Majdi Mohammed | AP

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger. She writes about the struggle for memory in Palestine and Chile, historical legitimacy, the ramifications of settler-colonialism, the correlation between humanitarian aid and human rights abuses, the United Nations as an imperialist organisation, indigenous resistance, la nueva cancion Chilena and Latin American revolutionary philosophy with a particular focus on Fidel Castro, Jose Marti and Jose Carlos Mariategui. Her articles, book reviews, interviews and blogs have been published in Middle East Monitor, Upside Down World, Truthout, Irish Left Review, Gramsci Oggi, Cubarte, Rabble.ca, Toward Freedom, History Today, Chileno and other outlets, including academic publications and translations into several languages.

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