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US Lawmakers Make Rare Visit to Hamas-Ruled Gaza


U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., left and U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., right, take photos of the rubble of the American International school in Beit Lahiya in the northern of Gaza Strip, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009. The Democratic congressmen traveled to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Thursday, the first congressional delegation to enter the area since the Islamic militant group rose to power. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

GAZA - A top U.S. senator and two other lawmakers made a rare visit to the Gaza Strip on Thursday but insisted a boycott of its Hamas Islamist rulers remained intact.

It was the highest-profile visit by U.S. legislators to the Gaza Strip since before the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising against Israel in 2000, U.S. officials said.

The visit follows a 22-day offensive which Israel launched with the declared aim of halting cross-border rocket fire by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. The bombardment killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, destroyed some 5,000 homes and decimated much of Gaza's infrastructure, local officials say.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for president in 2004, and two members of the House of Representatives, Brian Baird and Keith Ellison, entered the Gaza Strip separately.

The three Democrats planned to visit U.N. facilities and meet with aid groups, but will have no contact with Hamas, in keeping with long-standing U.S. policy, officials said.

Speaking to reporters in the southern Israeli border town of Sderot before entering the Gaza Strip, Kerry said U.S. policy on Hamas was unchanged.

"What has to change is behaviour. And what has to change, obviously, is Hamas's insistence on ... instruments of terror, which we have said, again and again, has no place at the table," Kerry said.

"The policy of the Obama administration and the policy of this Democratic Congress remains the same with respect to Hamas," he added.

Sderot has been particularly hard hit by rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

U.S. diplomats have been barred from entering the impoverished coastal enclave for security reasons since 2003, after a deadly roadside bombing of a U.S. Embassy convoy.

The travel restrictions do not apply to Congress.

The United States and the European Union shun Hamas, which they consider a terrorist organisation, over its refusal to recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by interim peace deals with the Jewish state.

The Islamist group won a 2006 Palestinian election and seized control of the Gaza Strip 18 months later after routing secular Fatah forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Kerry-led delegation was due to visit Syria at the weekend, U.S. officials said.

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