McCain Backs Israel's Tough Response to Attacks

After a visit to the southern Israeli town of Sderot, a frequent target of rockets fired from the nearby Gaza Strip, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, says he sees little point in negotiating with Hamas.

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In Israel today, Republican presidential candidate John McCain paid a visit to the southern town of Sderot. For months, the town has been a target of almost daily rocket attacks by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. After touring the area, McCain said he understands Israel's tough military response to the rocket fire. And said he sees little point in negotiating with Hamas.

NPR'S Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: After visits to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism's holiest site and Israel's Holocaust memorial, Senator McCain today took a helicopter and car tour of the south with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Following meetings with families and officials in Sderot, McCain said he was struck by the enormous pressure people here face living under constant threat of Gaza rocket fire.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): It's not a way for people to live, obviously. And it brings more into focus the absolute requirement to pursue the peace process.

WESTERVELT: McCain said his two-day visit to Israel is part of a congressional fact-finding tour. So he largely sidestepped questions about specific policies and the presidential campaign. He did say he backed the renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks but voiced skepticism the two sides could meet President Bush's time line and reach an historic deal by year's end.

In his two days here, Senator McCain did not meet with any Palestinian officials. But he did speak with President Mahmoud Abbas by telephone. Asked if the Palestinians felt snubbed by the absence of any one-on-one meeting, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat suggested McCain's trip was aimed more at courting Jewish voters in the U.S. than bolstering the peace process. Erekat said with a smile, someday Palestinians may have more money for campaign contributions. Erekat then called McCain amend committed to peace.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Senior Palestinian Negotiator): Knowing Senator McCain personally for many, many, many years, I really know of his commitment, of genuine commitment to peace between the Palestinians and Israelis based on the two-state solution.

WESTERVELT: Militants in Gaza have fired more than 900 rockets into Israel so far this year, killing one Israeli civilian. Recent Israeli attacks in Gaza have killed more than 120 Palestinians including dozens of civilians and sparking international criticisms. Senator McCain today said he understands Israel's tough response.

Sen. MCCAIN: No nation in the world can be attacked without incessantly and have its population killed and intimidated without responding.

WESTERVELT: In the last two weeks, there's been a relative calm in the south as Egyptian mediators try to secure a wider truce between Hamas and Israel.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Sderot.

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