BANGKOK— U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expressing concern about the escalating violence in the Gaza Strip, where Israel has conducted yet another day of airstrikes aimed at militants who have been firing rockets into southern Israel.
Panetta is in Asia promoting the U.S. plan to shift forces to the Asia-Pacific region, but his attention has been called to events in the Middle East.
On Thursday, he was briefed on the situation in Gaza before giving an exclusive interview to VOA in Bangkok.
“Any time violence springs up in the Middle East, wherever it is, it's cause for concern because you never know quite where it's all going to lead. I understand the reasons Israel is doing what they're doing,” Panetta said.
In the past year, Israel has been hit by nearly 800 rockets from Gaza and has responded with airstrikes.
In the wide-ranging interview, Panetta said the violence shows the need for a long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Our hope is, that in striking back, that they can minimize the civilian deaths that are likely to occur. But, I hope in the end that all sides recognize that this is no way to solve the problems of the Middle East. Ultimately, the hope is that we can get back to try to negotiate a permanent peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians and provide a more permanent peace in that region.” Panetta said.
Another area of special concern for Panetta is Syria, where cross-border attacks have prompted Turkey to ask NATO for Patriot missiles to place along the Syrian border. Panetta says the U.S. supports that request and that talks with Turkey are under way.
“They have asked that we work with them to try to see what we can do to give them some missile defense capability. And we are working with them. And our hope is that we can help provide that kind of assistance,” Panetta said.
The U.S. has praised the Syrian opposition's formation of a coalition but stopped short of supplying arms to rebels fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday announced $30 million in additional humanitarian aid for Syrians affected by the fighting.