Image: US Senator John Kerry visits Gaza
Mohammed Saber  /  EPA
Sen. John Kerry meets with the manager of an American-style international school during his visit to the Gaza Strip on Thursday. The site was hit by an Israeli missile during the country's recent military offensive targeting Hamas militants.
updated 2/19/2009 12:26:18 PM ET 2009-02-19T17:26:18

Sen. John Kerry came to the Gaza Strip on Thursday, the highest-level visit by a U.S. official since the Hamas militant group seized power in the territory nearly two years ago.

Kerry did not meet with anyone from Hamas, which the U.S. shuns as a terrorist group, and used the visit to urge the group to end its violent campaign against Israel.

However, the presence of the Massachusetts senator and former Democratic presidential nominee was a possible harbinger of a new U.S. approach in the region.

Since taking office last month, President Barack Obama has said he wants to improve America's ties with the Muslim world . Kerry is considered close to Obama, and a separate visit to Gaza by Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim congressman, was another possible sign of a new U.S. approach.

Accompanied by U.N. escorts, Kerry said he was in Gaza to view the aftermath of Israel's recent military offensive against Hamas . The operation killed some 1,300 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, caused widespread destruction and left thousands homeless.

"Let me make this clear, there is no change in policy," said Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I am here to listen with the U.N. personnel on the ground.... The things we need to do is to improve the situation in the region."

'We want peace'
Kerry toured the ruins of an American-style school that was destroyed in the Israeli bombing, and visited a neighborhood in northern Gaza where dozens of homes were flattened. He also spoke to residents, including Shaarhabel Alzeem, a prominent attorney.

"We highly appreciate your visit here and hope you can talk to your colleagues and say that we want peace with Israel. But we also need to live respectable lives," Alzeem told the senator.

"Your political leadership needs to make it clear how it is willing to move to make peace and those decisions have not been made yet," Kerry responded. "Your political leadership needs to understand that any nation that has rockets hitting it for many years threatening its residents is going to respond."

Israel launched the offensive in response to years of Palestinian rocket attacks on its south. The sides declared separate cease-fires Jan. 18, but sporadic violence has persisted while Egypt works to broker a long-term truce.

Two other Democratic congressmen, Ellison and Rep. Brian Baird of Washington, also came to Gaza on Thursday.

Tunnels bombed
During the day, Israeli warplanes attacked six suspected weapons-smuggling tunnels in southern Gaza in response to new rocket fire, the army said.

The airstrikes set off a huge explosion, signaling a weapons cache had been hit, the army said. The airstrikes took place about 20 miles from where the lawmakers were visiting; there were no reports of injuries.

Visits by U.S. officials to Gaza have been rare since Palestinian militants blew up an American diplomatic convoy in 2003, killing three people.

Before Thursday, no American officials had come to Gaza since Hamas won Palestinian elections in June 2006. The group violently seized control of Gaza the following year after a brief civil war.

Hamas official Ahmed Yousef welcomed the arrival of the Americans. "We highly appreciate the visit of any delegation that wants to find out the facts and see what has happened on the ground in Gaza," he said.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Kerry met Prime Minister Ehud Olmert early Thursday, but made no mention of his plans to go to Gaza.

More on Gaza | John Kerry | Israel

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