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MID: Kerry visit grants Washington a glimpse of Gaza wastelands

By Joseph Krauss
20 Feb 2009 5:49 AM

GAZA CITY, Feb 19 AFP - As US Senator John Kerry's convoy sped through the shattered streets of Gaza on Thursday Washington got a rare and chaotic glimpse of the destruction wrought by Israel's onslaught.

The chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee insisted it heralded no change in the US policy of blacklisting Gaza's Hamas rulers, but the rare visit seemed to embody the new administration's expressed willingness to listen to people on both sides of the decades-old Middle East conflict.

"It does not indicate any shift whatsoever with respect to Hamas," Kerry said. "What it indicates is an effort to listen and to learn."

Kerry had earlier visited the stacks of rocket casings displayed at the police station in the Israeli town of Sderot, the remains of some of the thousands of missiles fired at Israel by Gaza militants in recent years.

Israel launched its largest-ever assault on Gaza in December with the aim of halting such attacks. The ensuing 22-day war killed more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, and destroyed entire neighbourhoods in the impoverished territory.

The "Qassam museum" in Sderot - named after the crude, makeshift rockets - has become a regular place of pilgrimage for visiting US officials, and Kerry pointed out that President Barack Obama had been there last year.

"We feel very deeply that no one should have to live under this kind of threat," Kerry told reporters.

But then, under the pall of an approaching dust storm, he went inside the besieged coastal territory from where the rockets were fired, becoming one of the first American elected officials to visit Gaza in at least three years.

His convoy of a handful of UN armoured cars was trailed through the city by a swerving cavalcade of more than a dozen minibuses, taxis, and jeeps filled with Palestinian reporters.

At one point the honking assumed the rhythm of a wedding parade, with one driver yelling "Where is the bride!" to the bewildered crowds along the route.

Through tinted windows the onetime US presidential candidate saw the vast wasteland of Ezbet Abed Rabbo, where scores of Palestinians huddle in shanties erected on mounds of rubble that used to be their homes.

The veteran senator would have seen sheep grazing on piles of rubbish lining the dusty streets, the ruins of factories flattened by air strikes, and the occasional pack of rifle-toting Hamas policemen.

Kerry remained in the vehicle for most of the tour, but stopped and got out to survey the ruins of the American school, a premier US-style institution that was destroyed during the war.

It was there that he spoke with Sharhabil al-Zaim, a Palestinian lawyer in a crisp navy blue suit who had attended Yale University, Kerry's alma mater.

"Your political leadership needs to understand that any nation that has rockets coming into it over many years, threatening its citizens, is going to respond," Kerry told him.

"Yes," Zaim replied. "But if someone kidnaps a group of 100 people inside a bank, the police officer won't be able to take the decision to destroy the whole bank and kill all the hostages, along with the kidnapper."

Kerry ignored his security guards, who had begun to gently nudge the senator back to the cars. "You know what's important is not to have a debate that goes backwards, but to have a debate that goes forwards," he said.

And perhaps it did. The senator did not meet anyone from the Islamist Hamas movement that seized power in Gaza in June 2007, but his staff invited Zaim to join him for an hour-long discussion at UN headquarters in Gaza City.

"(The new administration) wants to see the United States of America as a fair broker for a peace process between Palestinians and Israelis," Zaim told AFP after the meeting. "I accepted the invitation."