GAZA CITY – U.S. Senator John Kerry on Thursday made a rare visit to the war-ravaged Gaza Strip, but stressed this did not reflect a change of policy towards the territory's Islamist rulers listed by Washington as a terror group.
The visit "does not indicate any shift whatsoever with respect to Hamas," said Kerry, who heads the Senate's powerful foreign relations committee.
His first stop in the impoverished Palestinian enclave was the American school left in ruins by the deadly 22-day Israeli offensive that ended on January 18.
Talking to a Palestinian lawyer amid the dust and rubble, Kerry defended Israel for responding to almost daily rocket attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups.
"Your political leadership needs to understand that any nation that has rockets coming into it over many years, threatening its citizens, is going to respond," Kerry told Shar Habeel al-Zaim.
Kerry briefly toured Izzbet Abed Rabbo, a northern Gaza community ravaged by the Israeli offensive and held talks with UN officials in Gaza City.
His visit coincided with a similar trip by Democratic US representatives Brian Baird and Keith Ellison, who expressed dismay at the plight of the overpopulated coastal strip.
"The amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering," Baird said in a statement issued jointly with Ellison.
The visits were the first by US officials in more than three years.
None of the congressmen met with Hamas, the Islamist movement which seized control of Gaza in June 2007 and which Washington blacklists as a terrorist organisation.
"There is nothing in a visit that changes anything," said Kerry, who is also scheduled to visit Syria 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 in the Israeli city of Sderot before entering the Palestinian enclave aboard a UN vehicle.
"We feel very deeply that no one should have to live under this threat," he said after he and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni inspected rockets fired by Gaza militants that are exhibited in Sderot police station.
Baird and Ellison planned on Friday to visit Sderot and nearby Ashkelon which are frequently targeted by rockets from Gaza.
Ellison, a representative from Minnesota, harshly criticised restrictions on the delivery of desperately needed goods into Gaza, which has been under a crippling Israeli blockade imposed after the 2007 Hamas takeover.
"People, innocent children, women and non-combatants, are going without water, food and sanitation, while the things they so desperately need are sitting in trucks at the border, being denied permission to go in," he said.
The congressmen's visit 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.
Early on Thursday, Israeli helicopter-backed troops were reportedly involved in a firefight when they briefly entered Gaza. Two rockets and two mortar rounds were then fired from the enclave and Israel responded with an air raid on smuggling tunnels on Gaza's border with Egypt.
There were no reports of casualties.
Cairo's efforts to broker a lasting truce hit a snag on Wednesday when Israel's security cabinet voted to make a truce conditional on the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier seized by Gaza militants in a deadly cross-border raid in June 2006.
Hamas insists that Shalit's release be negotiated separately as part of a prisoner exchange involving hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
The Israeli military says Gaza militants fired about 50 rockets and mortar rounds since the offensive ended. Israeli forces have conducted several raids over the same period.
"Just as the people of Gaza should not be subject to what they have experienced, the Israeli civilians should not have to live in fear of constant and indiscriminate rocketing," Baird and Ellison said in their joint statement.