GAZA CITY – Hamas denied on Friday having passed on to visiting U.S. Sen. John Kerry a letter for President Barack Obama, whose nation considers the Islamist group to be a terror organisation.
"Hamas denies having given a letter to John Kerry," spokesman Fawzi Barhum told AFP in the Gaza Strip.
"However, we are willing to forge ties with anyone who is ready to back the rights of the Palestinian people," Barhum added.
A U.N. spokesman earlier said that Kerry was given a letter for Obama believed to be from Hamas during the senator's to the Hamas-ruled and war-ravaged Gaza Strip on Thursday, as part of a regional tour.
"A letter addressed to Obama was left at the gate of our offices in Gaza," said Christopher Gunness of UNRWA, the agency for Palestinian refugees. "It is believed to be from Hamas."
Asked about the contents of the letter, Gunness said: "We are very polite at UNRWA, we don't open other people's mail."
He said the letter was given to the influential senator when he met relief officials at the UN compound during his tour of the devastated enclave, which no U.S. official had visited in years.
Kerry did not meet any Hamas representative during his Gaza visit but stressed that his presence in the coastal strip did not indicate a shift of US policy towards the Islamist group which has ruled Gaza since June 2007.
The United States, the European Union, and Israel all list Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Kerry, a 2004 Democratic presidential candidate who now heads the Senate foreign relations committee, is on a regional Middle East tour that has taken him to Jordan and Egypt. He plans to visit Syria on Saturday.
On Friday, the influential senator was set to hold talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres before meeting Palestinian officials.
The president's office said Peres and Kerry would discuss "the regional reality in the wake of the war in Gaza" among other issues.
Kerry saw for himself on Thursday the devastation wrought by Israel's 22-day offensive in Gaza, which targeted Hamas. He defended Israel for responding to almost daily rocket attacks by Hamas and other 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 a Palestinian lawyer amid the rubble of the American International School destroyed in the war that ended on Jan. 18.
Democratic U.S. Reps. Brian Baird from Washington state and Keith Ellison from Minnesota expressed dismay at the plight of the overpopulated coastal strip, which they visited at the same time as Kerry.
"The amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering," Baird said in a statement issued jointly with Ellison.
The first Muslim elected to Congress, Ellison slammed 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 noncombatants, 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.
On Friday, Baird and Ellison planned to tour Sderot, an Israeli city frequently targeted by Palestinian rockets, which Kerry visited with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni just before he went to neighbouring Gaza.
On Thursday evening, Kerry met Israel's armed forces chief of staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi who briefed him on the Gaza war which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis also died.
"The chief of staff presented to Senator Kerry the current strategic challenges faced by the state of Israel including the Iranian threat, the northern front and the Islamic terror effort in the Judea and Samaria region (West Bank) and the Gaza Strip," an army statement said.
Ashkenazi also "expressed his appreciation for the support shown by the United States administration to Israel, and for the ongoing cooperation between the two countries in the security and other fields," it said.
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