By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The highest-ranking U.S. military officer said on Thursday that Israel went to "extraordinary lengths" to limit civilian casualties in the recent war in Gaza and that the Pentagon had sent a team to see what lessons could be learned from the operation.
Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged recent reports criticizing civilian deaths during the 50-day Gaza war this year but told an audience in New York he thought the Israel Defense Forces "did what they could" to avoid civilian casualties.
Israel was criticized for civilian deaths during the conflict, including by the White House. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed during the fighting, most of them civilians and many of them children, according to U.N. and Palestinian figures.
A Human Rights Watch report in September accused Israel of committing war crimes by attacking three U.N.-run schools in the enclave, while Amnesty International said in a report released on Wednesday that Israel showed "callous indifference" to the carnage caused by attacks on civilian targets.
Dempsey was asked about the ethical implications of Israel's handling of the Gaza war, during an appearance in New York at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
"I actually do think that Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties," Dempsey told the group.
"In this kind of conflict, where you are held to a standard that your enemy is not held to, you're going to be criticized for civilian casualties," he added.
Dempsey said Hamas had turned Gaza into "very nearly a subterranean society" with tunneling throughout the coastal enclave.
"That caused the IDF some significant challenges. But they did some extraordinary things to try and limit civilian casualties, to include ... making it known that they were going to destroy a particular structure," Dempsey said.
He said the IDF, in addition to dropping warning leaflets, developed a technique called "roof-knocking" to advise residents to leave sites they planned to strike.
Rights groups have criticized the technique, which involves dropping a low-yield explosive or non-explosive device on a rooftop, saying it did not constitute an effective warning and could kill residents too.
Dempsey said the Pentagon three months ago sent a "lessons-learned team" of senior officers and non-commissioned officers to work with the IDF to see what could be learned from the Gaza operation, "to include the measures they took to prevent civilian casualties and what they did with tunneling."
The general said civilian casualties during the conflict were "tragic, but I think the IDF did what they could" to avoid them.
He said he thought his Israeli counterpart would look at lessons learned from the conflict to see what more could be done to avoid civilian deaths in future operations.
"The IDF is not interested in creating civilian casualties. They're interested in stopping the shooting of rockets and missiles out of the Gaza Strip and into Israel," Dempsey said.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)