The US senator John Kerry today made a rare visit to the war-ravaged Gaza Strip, but stressed this did not reflect a change of policy towards the territory's rulers listed by Washington as a terror group. The visit "does not indicate any shift whatsoever with respect to Hamas," Mr Kerry, who heads the Senate's powerful foreign relations committee, said before crossing from Israel into the Palestinian enclave aboard a UN vehicle.
"What it indicates is our effort to listen and to learn," the 2004 presidential candidate told journalists in Sderot, an Israeli city just outside Gaza that has been the main target of Palestinian rocket attacks in recent years. The influential senator was scheduled to hold talks with UN officials in Gaza. The Democratic US representatives Brian Baird and Keith Ellison were also in Gaza. The pair visited Izzbet Abed Rabbo, a community in northern Gaza which was hit hard during the war.
They also planned to visit a factory and a hospital damaged by the bombardments, Palestinian officials said. The congressmen were not scheduled to meet any Hamas officials during their visits, the first such trips since the group seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. The United States, the European Union and Israel list Hamas as a terror group. "There is nothing in a visit that changes anything" said Mr Kerry, who was scheduled to travel on to Syria on Saturday as part of his tour of the region.
"What has to change is behaviour. What has to change obviously is Hamas's consistent resort to instruments of terror," he said after he and the Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni were shown rockets fired by Gaza militants that are exhibited at the Sderot police station. "We feel very deeply that no one should have to live under this threat," he said. "The politics of the Obama administration and this Democratic Congress remain the same with respect to Hamas," said Mr Kerry.
The congressmen's visits came against the backdrop of continued violence in and around the besieged territory despite Egypt's efforts to broker a lasting ceasefire following the Israeli military offensive that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians. Palestinian militants today fired rockets and mortars at southern Israel, the Israeli army said just hours after troops reportedly were involved in a firefight when they briefly entered Gaza.
Two rockets and two mortar shells were fired from the Gaza Strip causing no damage or casualties, a military spokesman said. The Israeli military responded with an air raid on smuggling tunnels on Gaza's border with Egypt. Witnesses said there were no casualties. *AFP