American lawmakers were shocked by the scale of Israeli destruction they saw on Thursday, February 19, during a rare visit to the war-ravaged Gaza Strip.
"The amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering," Democratic representatives Brian Baird and Keith Ellison said in a joint statement cited by Agence France Presse (AFP).
After touring destroyed areas and meetings with UN officials, the lawmakers said the situation was "shocking and troubling beyond words."
"The personal stories of children being killed in their homes or schools, of entire families wiped out, and relief workers prevented from evacuating the wounded are heart wrenching," Baird said.
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the US Congress, harshly criticized restrictions on the delivery of desperately-needed goods into the coastal strip that has been under a long-running crippling Israeli blockade.
"People, innocent children, women and non-combatants, are going without water, food and sanitation, while the things they so desperately need are sitting in trucks at the border, being denied permission to go in," he said.
"The stories about the children affected me the most," added Ellison.
"No parent, or anyone who cares for kids, can remain unmoved by what Brian and I saw here."
The Israeli air, sea and ground attacks killed nearly 1,400 people, half of them women and children.
The 22-day onslaught destroyed nearly 20,000 homes, 48 government offices, 31 police stations and 30 mosques across the impoverished territory.
US Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate’s powerful Foreign Committee and former presidential candidate, also toured Gaza Thursday.
He visited the American school left in ruins by Israel’s offensive and Izzbet Abed Rabbo, a northern Gaza community ravaged by the Israeli bombing.
The separate visits were the first by US lawmakers since Hamas, which Washington blacklists as a terrorist organization, seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.
The three lawmakers made it clear that their visits did not have the official sanction of the Barack Obama administration.
They held talks with civilians and relief workers but did not meet with any representatives of Hamas.
Kerry insisted the visit "does not indicate any shift whatsoever with respect to Hamas."
Hamas officials saw the visits in positive terms nonetheless.
"This is a very good step reflecting the seriousness of this administration to follow up and get information about what is happening on the ground," said Ahmed Youssef, the deputy foreign minister in the Hamas-led Gaza government.
He believes gives a hope that the new US administration might depart from the policies of its predecessor.
"By seeing for themselves, they can get a more balanced view than that of the previous administration."
The Bush administration has spearheaded an international campaign to isolate Hamas, which came to power after sweeping the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.
It has rejected any contacts with Hamas and backed a crippling Israeli siege on Gaza, home to 1.6 Palestinians.
The Bush administration placed the responsibility for the Israeli onslaught squarely on Hamas.
"We know that we are still on the terrorist list and we know their position about not engaging with Hamas," said Youssef.
"But we are still happy that they are the ones evaluating the scale of the Israeli crimes and the destruction caused by Israel."
(IslamOnline.net and Agencies)