Obama: Israel has right to defend itself

BANGKOK (AP) — President Barack Obama said Sunday an incursion by Israel’s forces into the Gaza Strip could only deepen its death toll, cautioning against an escalation even as he defended the Jewish state’s right to defend itself. Obama also warned Palestinians the crisis could crush peace hopes for years.

Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory,” Obama said at the start of a three-nation tour in Asia.

“If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that’s preferable,” he said. “It’s not just preferable for the people of Gaza. It’s also preferable for Israelis, because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they’re much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded.”

Obama’s comments came as Israel’s campaign against Hamas militants in Gaza blasted into its fifth day. Israel is at a crossroads of whether to launch a ground invasion or pursue Egyptian-led truce efforts. Obama sought to defend the U.S. ally’s rights while pushing for a halt in the violence.

Obama made his remarks during a news conference at the start of a four-day trip, a visit designed to expand the U.S. economic and military footprint in a region long dominated by China.

But the developments in and around Israel illustrated the foreign policy challenges facing Obama. Even as he mounted a proactive mission in Southeast Asia, he was forced into a reactive mode to respond to conflict in the Middle East that he has been unable to help resolve.

From Thailand, Obama also defended his decision to go to Myanmar, also known as Burma, as some critics called his presence premature.

Obama will be the first U.S. president to visit the country, which is moving from a brutal reign toward democracy but still holds political prisoners and is living with ethnic violence.

“This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government,” Obama said. “This is an acknowledgement that there is a process underway inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw.”

Obama said he was also guided by Myanmar’s longtime democracy advocate, Aung Sung Suu Kyi, who visited him recently at the White House.

“I’m not somebody who thinks the United States should stand on the sidelines and not get its hands dirty when there’s an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country,” he said.

Change in a country can happen quickly, Obama said, if people believe “their voices are heard.”

The president will also visit Cambodia during his Asia trip, which began Sunday in Thailand. He was here as a sign of U.S. commitment to a region his administration deems vital to U.S. economic growth, but the shadows of another Mideast conflict hung over his journey.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Sunday that Israel was prepared to significantly expand its military operation in Gaza. Obama has been lobbying Netanyahu along with the leaders of Egypt and Turkey to try to halt the crisis — including stopping rocket strikes on Israel.

He said Israel was justly responding to “an ever escalating number of missiles that were landing not just in Israeli territory, but in areas that are populated. And there’s no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.”

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