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(photo credit: AP [file])
Three US lawmakers, including Sen. John Kerry, visited the Gaza Strip on Thursday, the first trip there by US congressmen in eight years and an indication, according to Rep. Brian Baird, of a change in the US approach to Gaza.
Baird (D-Wash) toured Gaza in the morning together with Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn), Congress's first Muslim member. They were followed in the afternoon by Kerry (D-Mass), who heads the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.
The visits, which were coordinated with Israel, were organized by the United Nations. Except for rare occasions, US embassy and consular officials have been prohibited by Washington from entering Gaza since the 2003 killing of three US security contractors.
None of the lawmakers met with representatives of Hamas, which the US has placed on its list of terrorist organizations.
CNN quoted Baird as saying the visit marked a change in attitude and approach to Gaza under newly-elected President Barack Obama.
But Kerry countered Baird.
"Let me make this clear, there is no change in policy," the Massachusetts senator said in Gaza. "I am here to listen with the UN personnel on the ground to hear their assessment and to make personal judgment."
He added that it would be necessary "to improve the situation in the region."
Kerry toured the ruins of an American-style school destroyed in an IAF bombing, and visited a neighborhood in northern Gaza where dozens of homes had been flattened. He also spoke with local 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," Alzeem told the senator. "But we also need to live respectable lives."
Kerry responded by saying that Alzeem should look to Palestinian leaders.
"Your political leadership needs to make it clear how it is willing to move to make peace," Kerry said, "and those decisions have not been made yet. Your political leadership needs to understand that any nation that has rockets hitting it for many years, threatening its residents, is going to respond."
Prior to going to Gaza, Kerry toured Sderot with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Baird and Ellison are scheduled to visit Sderot on Friday.
"The amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering," AFP quoted Baird as saying in Gaza in a statement issued jointly with Ellison. According to the report, Baird said the situation was "shocking and troubling beyond words."
Ellison, according to AFP, said, "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."
Together with Baird, Ellison spent some nine hours with relief workers and civilians in Gaza.
"The stories about the children affected me the most," the Minnesota Democrat said. "No parent, or anyone who cares for kids, can remain unmoved by what Brian and I saw here. The personal stories of children being killed in their homes or schools, of entire families wiped out, and relief workers prevented from evacuating the wounded, are heart wrenching."
Ellison told his hometown newspaper, The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, that he was not there to assign blame but had found the civilian devastation hard to understand.
"I've always believed we need to resolve this thing by diplomacy," Ellison said. "I'm even more convinced of that now."
Israeli officials downplayed the importance of the visits, saying they signaled no change in US policy toward Hamas. However, one diplomatic official said that while the visits did not necessarily presage a change of policy, they did signal a different attitude, reflecting Obama's philosophy that it is necessary to "go to different places and talk to many different people."
AP contributed to this report.