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Kerry, two Democrats visit Gaza to assess damage, needs

Trip is first by US officials in over 3 years

By Taghreed el-Khodary
New York Times / February 20, 2009
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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Three congressional Democrats, including Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, visited Gaza yesterday, saying they wanted to see for themselves the destruction caused by the war with Israel last month and to assess the area's needs.

They were the first American government officials to visit this Palestinian coastal strip run by Hamas in more than three years and the first American legislators to come since 2000, according to a spokeswoman for the American Consulate in Jerusalem.

Kerry said that his visit indicated no change in American policy toward Hamas, which is officially committed to the destruction of Israel and which the United States labels a terrorist group. He said he would not meet with any Hamas leaders.

"Hamas has to change its policies," Kerry said while visiting the ruins of the American International School in Gaza, which was destroyed by an Israeli air attack in early January. "There is no change in our policy."

Since taking office last month, President Obama has said he wants to improve America's ties with the Muslim world.

The White House had no comment on Kerry's visit.

In Israel, legislator Yuval Steinitz, a member of the hawkish Likud party on Parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said he saw no policy message in Kerry's tour.

"I don't think it means anything because Kerry is a member of the Senate and does not represent the administration. It's just the United States saying it is not ignoring the Palestinians," Steinitz said. "It's not a change in policy because he didn't meet with any Hamas members."

Kerry, who is on a tour of the region, entered Gaza after seeing the remains of Palestinian rockets fired at the Israeli city of Sderot.

He was accompanied in Sderot by Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who is engaged in negotiations to try to build a coalition of parties after elections more than a week ago.

Separately, two other congressmen visited Gaza: Representative Brian Baird, Democrat of Washington, and Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota. Their trip was arranged independently of Kerry's but included similar tours of destroyed areas and meetings with UN officials.

Although none of the Americans met with Hamas officials, a senior Hamas leader said he was pleased by their visit.

"This is a very good step reflecting the seriousness of this administration to follow up and get information about what is happening on the ground," said Ahmed Youssef, the deputy foreign minister in the Hamas government. "We know that we are still on the terrorist list and we know their position about not engaging with Hamas. But we are still happy that they are the ones evaluating the scale of the Israeli crimes and the destruction caused by Israel. By seeing for themselves, they can get a more balanced view than that of the previous administration."

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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