UW must divest from Caterpillar

By Sam Stevenson

Tuesday, October 13, 2009 10:59 p.m

The Badger-Herald
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Israel is a criminal nation. This statement has been a verifiable fact for many decades and continues to gain support with each new violation of international law Israel commits. Most recently, a U.N. report authored by Richard Goldstone – a South African judge and self-proclaimed Zionist – found that Israel (and Hamas) committed war crimes and (quite possibly) crimes against humanity earlier this year during the Israeli invasion of Gaza. During that war the Israeli army killed more than 1,300 Gazans including 437 under 18. They also wounded nearly 2,000 Gaza children. In contrast, the Israel Defense Forces suffered 13 causalities, nearly half victims of friendly fire. Tens of thousands of Palestinians were left homeless in the war”s aftermath. Even before the war, figures as diverse as President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu had compared the conditions of Palestinians in the occupied territories to those of blacks in South Africa under apartheid.

If this seems like the complete antithesis of a “campus issue,” you might be surprised how far reaching the conflict really is. Allow me to explain how this tragic story actually does affect students at this university and what genuine opportunities we have to seek justice for the Palestinians, safety for the Israelis and perhaps even the beginnings of a resolution to one of the most obdurate conflicts in modern history.

The war in Gaza was the most recent outburst of violence stemming from a persistent aggression that has been smoldering in its modern incarnation for more than 60 years. Of the many factors contributing to the seething animosity between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, the pervasive occupation of Palestinian lands, accompanied by the wanton demolition of Palestinian homes and businesses by the Israel Defense Forces, have been central.

The rationale behind this destruction has been disputed since the practice began in 1945 under a British mandate. The IDF insists the demolition of Palestinian property is for the sole purpose of destroying militant hideouts and supply chains. However, in the occupied territories it has been argued that the true rationale behind the bulldozing of Palestinian homes is to disembowel Palestinian dignity and what little control they have left over their own lives. The latter point is certainly supported by the tragically farcical bulldozing notice given to residents, usually on the order of minutes to a half hour.

When Israel destroys hundreds of Palestinian homes as “punishment” and thousands more to root out “terrorists,” its motives are brought into serious doubt. Indeed, the IDF violates the Geneva Convention every time they destroy private property for purposes other than those “rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.”

So how does all this affect us and what can we do as students to send a message to Israel that we denounce their cruel and gratuitous mistreatment of Palestinians? Well, it all starts with money.

The UW system has an endowment that is invested in a long list of corporations. One of those corporations is Caterpillar – the manufacturer of the bulldozers that the IDF employs to tear down Palestinian homes – to the tune of nearly $400,000. The tuition dollars we give the university every year fund this system and makes us, in part, responsible for how and where this endowment is invested. A brief review of the facts makes it clear the UW System Board of Regents must follow historical precedent and withdraw endowment funds from companies doing business with perpetrators of war crimes.

In the past, the UW has divested from countries and companies that are complicit in violations of international law. These include South Africa, Burma and Sudan. In fact, the UW System Trust and Fund Policy states it will “seriously reconsider” investments in companies that “violate, frustrate or subvert” international law. Cases involving Caterpillar”s complicity in violations of international law as well as the legality of Israel”s demolition policy are currently being litigated; indisputably, compelling evidence of criminality exists. Other universities in the U.S. and Europe have already divested from Caterpillar for these very reasons.

Ultimately, divestment would send a message to Israel that one of the largest public universities in the United States views its conduct as abhorrent and in need of drastic change. That is the message Israel needs to hear not only from the federal government but also from the myriad institutions in this country that support the apartheid-like conditions Israel brandishes over the Palestinian people.

That message and the position it embodies is ironically the most pro-Israel stance one can take. Indeed, it is only by being critical of Israeli policy and endeavoring to change it that one can hope of achieving a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Any practical and serious observer knows that a two-state solution is the only just resolution for the Palestinians and the Israelis. Only after serious concessions are made can peace, safety and healthy livelihoods be made manifest in the region. That process begins by withdrawing unconditional support for Israel and instead holding them to tough, honest standards by which the Palestinians are treated humanely. That process can begin with UW students.

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