Feared `beasts' in Mideast


Bulldozers: For Palestinians, U.S-made Caterpillar D9s, D10s and D11s are hated symbols of Israel's military might.

October 04, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ZIF, West Bank -- Hamad Shatat knew what was coming the moment he heard the deafening roar of the engines. Moments later, he saw two bulldozers operated by the Israeli army maneuver past a herd of goats and crash into the walls of his house.

These were not ordinary bulldozers. The mammoth machines nicknamed "the Beast" are slightly smaller than a tank but are more feared. The smallest of their interchangeable blades is taller than an adult, and wide enough to clear a two-lane highway with one swipe.

"In a matter of hours," Shatat says, "they destroyed our dreams in front of our eyes."

For Palestinians, the American-made Caterpillar D9 bulldozers -- and their larger cousins, the D10 and D11 -- have become hated symbols of Israel's military might and additional evidence of U.S. complicity in Israeli's actions.

On the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinians talk of the 104,000-pound D9 in the same angry breath as an F-16 warplane and an Apache helicopter gunship. Children who throw stones at Israeli tanks run from the D9.

The Israeli army has used bulldozers to demolish homes of militants and suicide bombers, uproot olive groves, clear land for roads to Jewish settlements and pile rocks to block roads used by Palestinians. It has also deployed the machines as offensive weapons. When soldiers were pinned down in the Jenin refugee camp in April, army D9s leveled homes in an area the size of two football fields and quickly brought the battle to an end.

And in Ramallah, the bulldozers played a prominent role in laying siege and destroying most of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound, reducing the symbol of Palestinian self-rule to little more than a rock quarry. Buildings erected by Great Britain in the 1930s tumbled under the weight of the D9s, which shoved stories-high piles of concrete into evenly spaced mounds with ease.

The walls of the building occupied by Arafat and his aides cracked and shook. A tank barrel was pointed at Arafat's window, but his aides feared the demolition signaled the true end. An Israeli army commander stood amid the ruins 100 yards from Arafat's office and concurred that guns would not force anyone inside to surrender. "The real pressure," he said, "comes from bulldozers."

Each bulky, snub-nosed D9 is 13 feet high and has a blade 6 feet, 4 inches high and 14 feet long. The machine costs $500,000, and the Israeli army spends another $120,000 to add armor and a bulletproof cage for the driver, who has to climb a ladder to reach the seat. The blade on the newer D11s, which costs $1.1 million, is 11 feet high and 24 feet wide.

Representatives from Caterpillar, the world's largest supplier of heavy construction and mining equipment, acknowledge that Israel's unusual use of the machines has created controversy for the company.

"Caterpillar shares the world's concern over unrest in the Middle East and we certainly have compassion for all those affected by the political strife," company spokesman Benjamin S. Cordani said, reading from a prepared statement. "However, more than two million Caterpillar machines and engines are at work in virtually every country and region of the world each day.

"We have neither the legal right nor the means to police individual use of that equipment."

Army spokesmen declined to say how many bulldozers the army owns and how many it uses under contract from private companies. Nor would it allow interviews of any drivers.

Israeli newspapers have written about the commander of the bulldozing unit at Arafat's compound, a 23-year-old female lieutenant identified only as Talia. Depicted as a small, smiling girl, she described the work as a model of precise engineering, and not wanton destruction.

But the lore of the D9 was solidified, at least in the minds of human rights groups and the Palestinians, when Army reservist Moshe Nissim spoke to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in May and told of driving the bulldozer in Jenin, with only two hours of training.

"For three days, I just erased and erased," the 40-year-old told the paper, describing how he downed whiskey to stay awake for 75 hours. "I entered Jenin driven by madness, by desperation. ... I didn't give a damn about demolishing all the houses I've demolished, and I have demolished plenty. I made them a stadium in the middle of the camp. If I'm sorry for anything, it is for not tearing the whole camp down."

The army dismisses Nissim's story as the exaggerated bravado of a drunkard and poor soldier. But for military critics, his account typifies the personality recruited to sit atop a D9.

Hamad Shatat could see the man driving the D9 that destroyed his home. He was wearing civilian clothes, but was protected in a bulletproof cage high above the ground.

Shatat and his brother, Musa, 42, saved for 30 years to build the house, in an area south of Hebron under Israeli control. They didn't obtain a construction permit -- which they say is nearly impossible to get because of travel restrictions -- but also said that Israeli authorities didn't warn them that their home was to be demolished, and thus they had no chance to appeal in court.

The bulldozers came the morning of Sept. 2. What remains are the concrete outlines of the foundations, a pile of metal connecting rods and decorative slabs of limestone that used to surround the front door.

"We felt very handicapped, very weak," says Musa, wearing a baseball cap adorned with the American flag, and walking on the ground where his house once stood.

"The D9 is more frightening than the tank. When it comes, you know it's coming to destroy you."

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