The Pentagon has distanced itself from claims made by a top-ranking military official that the US has received advice from Israel on limiting civilian deaths.
Speaking at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York on 6 November, Martin Dempsey, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, praised the Israeli army for going to “extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties” during its summertime operation against Gaza.
“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,” said Dempsey in response to a question about the ethics of Israel’s assault on the besieged Gaza Strip, which killed 2,194 Palestinians.
At least 70 percent of those killed were identified as civilians by the United Nations, including at least 519 children. In stark contrast, Palestinian resistance fighters killed 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians, making it unclear what unique “standard” Dempsey is holding Israel to.
Dempsey absolved Israel of responsibility for these deaths by accusing Hamas of transforming Gaza into “a subterranean society,” referring to the elaborate network of tunnels that Gaza uses as a lifeline to bypass Israel’s starvation blockade, which amounts to collective punishment — forbidden by the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Dempsey added that the Pentagon was so impressed with the Israeli army’s conduct in Gaza that it sent a “lessons-learned team” to Israel three months ago to study and emulate “the measures they took to prevent civilian casualties.”
“We asked [Israeli army Chief of Staff] Benny [Gantz] if we could send a lessons learned team,” said Dempsey, telling the audience, “We sent a team of senior officers and non-commissioned officers over to work with the [Israeli army] to get the lessons from that particular operation in Gaza.”
But in a statement emailed to the The Electronic Intifada, Commander Elissa Smith, a Department of Defense spokesperson, denied that the US believed Israel did everything it could to spare civilians.
“Following the conflict, as the chairman [Dempsey] noted, we engaged in a routine military exchange with the Israeli Defense Forces. Representatives from the Joint Staff and services traveled to Israel to receive a briefing from military counterparts on the conflict,” Smith writes. “It is important to note that this exchange was not a commentary or affirmation of Israeli actions in Gaza.”
Asked whether Dempsey’s praise of Israel’s conduct in Gaza reflects the position of the Pentagon, Smith predictably reaffirms Israel’s right to defend itself but clarifies that the Pentagon remains “deeply” troubled by the high civilian death toll.