Dozens of protesters converged on a construction equipment dealership in Milford recently to protest the sale of Caterpillar bulldozers to the Israeli military, alleging that the bulldozers were being used in violation of international and American law to destroy Palestinian homes and property.
Milton Cat, one of the largest Caterpillar dealers in the Northeast, does not sell equipment overseas, company officials said. Officials at Caterpillar's corporate headquarters said they have no control over what their equipment is used for.
The Israeli consulate in New England said Israel had demolished homes to combat terrorism but had halted the practice recently to foster peace in the region.
''It is ironic that these activists in Milford are protesting the sale of Caterpillar equipment to Israel at a time when Israel has decided to cease this practice of house demolitions," said Bonnie Rose Schulman, spokeswoman for the Consulate General of Israel in New England, in a prepared statement.
''Such a protest at this time proves that these activists are merely opposing Israel's policies out of habit and vendetta, without substantial ground on which to stand," she added.
Protesters went to Milford to put pressure on Caterpillar Inc. as part of a campaign, launched in 40 states and 10 countries, to embarrass the company.
''They should be embarrassed that their equipment is being used to carry out what has widely been documented as, and what has been widely condemned . . . as, flagrant violations of human rights," said Michael Rainho, a member of the Cambridge-based Boston to Palestine group, which helped to organize the local protest.
About 50 people protested last Saturday outside the Quarry Drive company, and protesters plan to spend the next three Saturdays slowing traffic and drawing the attention of shoppers headed for nearby Target and Super Stop & Shop stores with signs that say ''CAT profits, Palestinians suffer."
Steve Frohbieter, administrative services manager at Milton Cat, said the protesters have been extremely cordial, but company officials were surprised that they assembled outside their offices, given that it doesn't sell bulldozers to Israel.
A spokesman at Caterpillar headquarters in Chicago said the company simply sold its products and did not want to be drawn into a political debate.
Benjamin S. Cordani said the company has neither the legal right nor the means to police the use of its products. While the company shares concerns over unrest in the Middle East, he said, the issue is more a matter for politicians.
''We certainly have compassion for all those affected, but we feel that debate is better suited for our governmental leaders," he said.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based human rights group, contends that Caterpillar bulldozers have been the main tool used by the Israel Defense Force to destroy 2,500 Palestinian homes.
But Schulman said military actions carried out by Israel target terror and the infrastructure of terror, not innocent civilians.
One of the tactics once used, officials said, was the demolition of terrorists' homes used as launching pads for terrorist acts.
Mark Lance, a member of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation steering committee who is helping to manage the national protest campaign against Caterpillar, said the Israeli military's decision does not address those homes of Palestinian civilians that are destroyed in order to expand Israeli settlements or make room for the controversial separation barrier in the West Bank.
''As an official policy," Schulman said, ''Israel has ceased the practice of house demolitions." However, she added, ''Like many countries, Israel deems that other conditions, including illegal building, nonownership of land, and criminal reasons, could warrant the demolition of a house."
After a decision to demolish is made, she said, a homeowner can appeal to a court.
Activists are preparing for the company's April 13 shareholders' meeting in Chicago, at which they'll ask that attendees sign a resolution to look into halting the sale of Caterpillar bulldozers to the Israeli military.
Franco Ordoñez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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