The costume-clad children of Sderot, dressed up for an early Purim celebration under the threat of rocket attacks, caught the attention of US Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain during his solidarity trip to the town on Wednesday. Before heading into a press conference, McCain paused to smile and chat with the children, who were at a Purim party in the hallway of the town's community center, which offers protection against the Kassam rockets. At a press briefing in the same building, he used the children to illustrate the problem in Sderot. "The situation here is one that is very compelling. [There have been] 900 rocket attacks in less than three months, on average [of] one every two hours. Obviously, this puts an enormous strain on the people, especially on the children, as they celebrate their version of Halloween here. "They are somewhere close to a 15-second warning, which is the amount of time they have from when a rocket is launched, for them to get to safety. That is not a way for people to live," said McCain. This "tragedy" underscores the "absolute requirement to pursue the peace process," which is the only cure to the problem, he said. But in the absence of peace, McCain said, he understood that Israel had no choice but to act against those firing the rockets. "When one is attacked, one has to respond," the Arizona senator said. "No nation in the world can be attacked incessantly and have its population killed and intimidated without responding. One of the first obligations of government is to provide security for all of its citizens. The Israeli government has to act in that fashion and I understand it," McCain said. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who accompanied McCain to Sderot and spoke with him at the press conference, pledged that Israel would operate in Gaza to eliminate the rocket threat. The IDF, Barak said, would "continue with its activities against terrorists and rocket launchers." These rockets, he said, were not sophisticated or accurate enough to hit military targets. Their sole purpose, Barak said, was to target civilians. McCain made no direct comments during the press conference about the difficult conditions under which Gazans live. He harshly criticized the Hamas regime there, which - he said - was "committed to the extermination of the State of Israel. It is very difficult to negotiate with an organization that is dedicated to your extinction." Until Hamas renounced violence, accepted past agreements with Israel, and recognized Israel's right to exist, no such direct talks could take place, he said. Barak, however, said there were indirect talks between Israel and Hamas on the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the release of IDF Cpl. Gilad Schalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas in June 2006. "I do not think there is a place now for other contacts," he said. McCain spoke warmly of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, even though McCain did not meet with Abbas or any other Fatah leaders during his one-day visit. In response to a question on the absence of a meeting between the two men, McCain said, "I have had other meetings with him [Abbas] in the past and I will have other meetings with him in the future." He added that during his visit, "We did have a [telephone] conversation with Abbas. He is committed to the peace process... I believe that we could conclude negotiations with them [the PA]." Turning to Washington, McCain said he believed that US President George W. Bush was committed to the process started at Annapolis in November aimed at completing a peace deal by the end of 2008. "I am not sure whether it will succeed in that period of time, but I do believe that the administration is making every possible effort to do so," McCain said. He ducked questions as to what he would do about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were he elected president. He noted that he was in Israel with Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is an Independent, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is a Republican, as part of the trio's work on the Senate Armed Services Committee. The trip, which included stops in Iraq and Jordan, was not part of his presidential campaign, McCain said. Still, Barak gave McCain a boost, calling him "a great leader and a great friend of Israel." He added that McCain "always stands by our side." McCain, in turn, spoke of Barak as a "true hero," a man of "incredible courage and bravery." The two men stood close to one other during the conference, and at times whispered to each other. Before arriving in Sderot, Barak had taken McCain on a helicopter tour of the country. Earlier, McCain, Lieberman and Graham met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert told them he was not optimistic about the current relative calm in the South. "I am skeptical about what appears like a temporary calm, and am doubtful about whether it will continue," the prime minister said, adding that it was clear Israel could not continue to suffer rocket fire. Olmert said it was possible to stop the rocket attacks without re-conquering Gaza, by creating sufficient deterrence so that terrorists would "think twice before they shoot again." McCain agreed that the situation in the South was intolerable, and repeated what he said a day earlier in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, that his constituents in Arizona would demand a vigorous response if they were being fired upon from across the border. The prime minister told the senators that Hamas was supported by Syria and Iran, and that although the international community condemned Israel for its military operations in Gaza, Israel had no other way to stop the rocket attacks. Olmert, who spent two hours with the senators in his Jerusalem residence over lunch, told them that in addition to halting the Kassam fire, Israel was trying to build momentum with the pragmatic elements in the PA. Another focus of discussion was Iran, with Olmert saying Israel disagreed with December's US National Intelligence Estimate, which said that Teheran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The prime minister told the senators he believed Iran was continuing with its secret program to procure nuclear weapons. McCain, who was critical of the National Intelligence Estimate when it came out, said in his interview with the Post that Iran was "obviously pursuing nuclear weapons." The senators also met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who, according to a statement from her office, briefed them on the threats facing Israel and said, "It is impossible to achieve peace without dealing with the fundamental issues of terrorism and extreme Islamism. A change in Gaza is essential." Livni said Israel must insist on three conditions in Gaza: a complete halt to the rocket attacks, an end to Hamas's weapons build-up, and preventing the establishment of an extremist Islamic regime just beyond the security fence. "Hamas cannot be legitimized, and a situation in which the Palestinians and the Arab world perceive any outcome as a victory for Hamas cannot be allowed," she said. "All options for action are on the table."