U.S. Senator John Kerry travelled to the war-ravaged Gaza Strip following two other Democratic lawmakers who also were in the Hamas-run Palestinian territory on Thursday, witnesses said.
Kerry, a 2004 presidential candidate who now chairs the Senate's foreign relations committee, went into Gaza after visiting Sderot, a nearby Israeli city that has been the main target of Palestinian rocket attacks, as part of a regional tour.
He entered the Palestinian enclave aboard a U.N. vehicle, witnesses said.
The visit "does not indicate any shift whatsoever with respect to Hamas," Kerry said before crossing from Israel into the Palestinian enclave aboard a U.N. vehicle.
"What it indicates is our effort to listen and to learn," he told journalists in Sderot after he and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were shown rockets fired by Gaza fighters that are exhibited at the Sderot police station.
Touring damaged areas
U.S. congressmen Brian Baird and Keith Ellison were also in Gaza in the first such visit since the Islamist Hamas seized power in the Palestinian territory in June 2007. Baird is a representative from Washington state and Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, is from Minnesota.
They visited Izzbet Abed Rabbo, a community in northern Gaza devastated during the deadly 22-day Israeli offensive that ended on Jan. 18. They also planned to visit a factory and a hospital damaged during the war, Palestinian officials said.
An estimated 14,000 to 20,000 homes and other buildings were damaged or destroyed during the military offensive in which more than 1,330 Palestinians were killed and 5,000 others wounded. Thirteen Israelis were killed as well.
Palestinian sources said that Baird and Ellison would not meet Hamas representatives during their visit to Gaza.
The U.S., the European Union and Israel list Hamas as a terror group.
"There is nothing in a visit that changes anything" said Kerry, who was scheduled to travel on to Syria on Saturday as part of his tour of the region.
"What has to change is behavior. What has to change obviously is Hamas's consistent resort to instruments of terror. We feel very deeply that no one should have to live under this threat," he said.
"The politics of the Obama administration and this Democratic Congress remain the same with respect to Hamas," said the influential senator who was scheduled to hold talks with U.N. officials in Gaza.
Palestinian fighters on Thursday fired rockets and mortars at southern Israel, causing no damage or casualties, in response to a brief Israeli incursion into Gaza, which also included a firefight between both sides.
The Israeli military responded with an air raid on smuggling tunnels on Gaza's border with Egypt. Witnesses said there were no casualties.
Cairo's efforts to broker a lasting truce hit a snag on Wednesday when Israel's security cabinet voted to make a truce conditional on the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier seized by Gaza militants in a deadly cross-border raid in June 2006.