A senior U.S. lawmaker has made a rare visit to the Gaza Strip, but insists the trip does not change Washington's stance that the territory's Hamas rulers are terrorists.

Democratic Senator John Kerry, chairman of the influential Foreign Relations Committee, is the highest-level U.S. official to visit Gaza in years.

He made the journey to view the aftermath of the Israeli military offensive that caused widespread damage and left about 1,300 Palestinians dead.  Two Democratic congressmen, Britan Baird and Keith Ellison, also made a similar trip to Gaza Thursday.

Kerry told Palestinian civilians he met that their political leadership needs to make critical decisions about moving toward peace. He also defended Israel's military operation, saying any nation that is attacked by rockets for years is going to respond.

Kerry did not meet anyone from Hamas. Still, the militant group welcomed the senator's visit to Gaza.

Kerry earlier visited the Israeli border town of Sderot, which is frequently hit by rockets from Gaza.

Although both Israel and Hamas have called a cease-fire, attacks continue from both sides of the border.  On Thursday, the Israeli army said it carried out air strikes on six tunnels believed to be used for smuggling weapons. Israeli officials also reported rocket fire from Gaza.  No casualties were reported.

Kerry is scheduled to visit Syria this week and is expected to urge the country to play a positive role in the Middle East. Syria has supported Hamas and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The United States and Syria have long had strained ties, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says he hopes a new relationship can be formed now that a new U.S. president is in office.

A spokesman for the Syrian embassy in Washington told VOA's Kurdish service Thursday that his country always has its hands extended to the United States. On the Mideast peace process, the spokesman, Ahmed Salkini, said talks between Syria and Israel will resume when Israel is ready for them.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.