Kerry steps cautiously into Hamas territory

Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts headlined a trio of US congressmen traveling to Gaza today. United Nations officials in the coastal strip took the 2004 presidential candidate on a tour of the destruction from the 22-day war between Hamas and Israel that came to a close on Jan. 18.

But does his visit there – a rarity for any US lawmaker or official since Gaza militants attacked a US convoy in 2003 – signal a shift in US policy? It's hard to say. While Senator Kerry has a close relationship with President Obama, an Israeli politician from the right-wing Likud party observed that the visit to Gaza doesn't mean anything "because Kerry is a member of the Senate and does not represent the administration."

Kerry himself says: "Let me make this clear, there is no change in policy." The White House didn't have any comment on the trip.

While he didn't meet with anyone from Hamas, which the US considers a terrorist organization, he urged the militant group to end its violent campaign against Israel while visiting one of the most frequent targets of rocket attacks in Israel - Sderot.

In a separate visit, Reps. Brian Baird (D) of Washington and Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota came to see for themselves the devastation in Gaza.

'No one can remain unmoved'

With thousands of buildings damaged or destroyed during the military offensive and more than 1,300 Palestinians killed, there was much to take in.

Mr. Baird observed, "The amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering."

Mr. Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the US Congress, noted the lack of basic supplies such as food, water, and sanitation. He was, he said, particularly moved by stories that affected children: "No parent, or anyone who cares for kids, can remain unmoved by what Brian and I saw here."

Hamas: A good step forward

A senior Hamas leader said he considered the US congressmens' visit, and the fact that they were seeing the aftermath of the offensive for themselves, a good step toward forward. The BBC reported that Hamas gave a letter addressed to Mr. Obama to a visiting US politician, though it was not clear whether that was Kerry.

Shaarhabel Alzeem, a prominent lawyer, told Kerry that long border closures were major problems, fueling frustrations and radicalism in Gaza. He said the opening of the borders would release tensions.

Israel plays the Shalit card

But for Israel, securing the borders and ending the smuggling of arms and other goods through the Gaza tunnels is a critical issue, which the Monitor detailed in this recent article.

On Wednesday, Israel’s security cabinet voted to make the opening of Israel’s border crossings with Gaza – a central Hamas demand for any long-term cease-fire arrangement – conditional on the release of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas.

Jerusalem bureau chief Ilene Prusher laid that out well in her Feb. 19 piece about the negotiations, which you can read here.

Israeli politics shift right, possibly complicating US ties

But hopes for a revival of the peace process were clouded Thursday when the jockeying for a new Israeli government after last week’s election took a turn to the right. Israeli right-wing politician Avigdor Lieberman threw his weight behind Benjamin Netanyahu (read our story here), raising concerns that they could put Israel at odds with the US and its new president’s goals for resolution to the drawn-out conflict.

But former Senator George Mitchell, Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, has seen such setbacks before as peace broker in Northern Ireland. As correspondent Mark Rice-Oxley laid out in this recent piece, those who know him say if anyone can bring peace to the Mideast, it’s Senator Mitchell.

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