WASHINGTON (JTA) — U.S. Sen. John Kerry toured the Gaza Strip and emphasized the visit did not signal a change in U.S. policy.
Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, did not meet with officials of Hamas and said Thursday’s visit was simply to assess the damage caused by the recent Hamas-Israel war in the strip.
"I am here to listen with the U.N. personnel on the ground to hear their assessment and to make personal judgment," he said.
Kerry also toured southern Israeli towns hit by Hamas rocket fire during the conflict.
Israeli media, nonetheless, noted Kerry’s closeness to President Obama and reported the visit as part of Obama’s plans to expand diplomatic outreach in the region. Kerry is the first senior U.S. figure to visit Gaza since Hamas, the terrorist organization that controls the strip, won legislative elections three years ago.
Two U.S. congressmen, Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who also toured the Gaza Strip Thursday said in a joint statement that the postwar suffering was "staggering" and called Israel’s limitations on aid "indefensible."
Israel says it is allowing aid agencies to meet Gaza’s humanitarian needs; it is leveraging the full opening of the crossings for the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier snatched by Hamas in a June 2006 cross-border raid.
Baird and Ellison emphasized that they were not representing the Obama administration and that State Department officials had warned them that their visit could not be secured. Like Kerry, the congressmen also will tour areas of southern Israel targeted by Hamas rockets; Hamas massive intensification of rocket fire in mid-December launched the war.
"The first and most urgent priority must be to help the people in Gaza," the statement said. "At the same time, the rocket attacks against Israeli cities must stop immediately. 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."