SDEROT, Israel - Touring a war-battered town, Sen. John McCain said yesterday that he understood Israel's tough response to Palestinian rocket fire, adding that there was no point in negotiating with the Gaza Strip's Islamic Hamas regime.

The Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting also praised Mahmoud Abbas, saying the Palestinian Authority president is committed to reaching a peace deal with Israel, though McCain is not meeting with Palestinians this time.

McCain's visit to Israel is part of a weeklong trip through the Middle East and Europe. After a day of meetings with Israeli leaders, he visited Sderot, the southern Israeli border town that has been the target of thousands of crude Palestinian rockets in recent years.

"That is not a way for people to live," McCain said. "No nation in the world can be attacked incessantly and have its population killed and intimidated without responding. That's one of the first obligations of government, to provide security for its citizens."

Israel has been widely criticized for military operations aimed at stopping the rocket attacks, as well as its blockade of Gaza.

McCain's visit, while billed as routine congressional business, appeared to be aimed at burnishing his leadership credentials and courting Jewish voters for the fall election. Jews make up large voting blocs in several key swing states, including Florida and Michigan.

Although McCain did not visit Palestinian areas, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Arizona senator had always been accessible to the Palestinians and was "committed to peace." But he suggested that McCain's visit was aimed more at attracting Jewish voters than promoting peace negotiations.

"Maybe one day Palestinians will have money for your campaigns in the United States," he said.

McCain said that because he was on a congressional fact-finding tour, it was not the time to discuss his campaign. Still, in an interview published in the Jerusalem Post, McCain said he would "personally be engaged" in peace talks if elected and "give it my highest priority."

Speaking in Sderot, McCain gave strong indications that he would follow the policies of President Bush, who has promoted peace talks between Israel and Abbas, while working to isolate the Hamas government in Gaza.

Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas' forces in June, and Abbas now rules from the West Bank.

McCain did not meet with Abbas during his two-day visit, but said he spoke to the Palestinian leader by phone. McCain said Abbas was committed to reaching a peace deal with Israel but questioned whether a target of a deal this year is realistic.

"I hope that he can deliver. I think he is sincere," McCain said. "I think the Palestinian people desire peace. I believe they deserve peace."

McCain also said a peace agreement was a key U.S. interest.

The Palestinians seek an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza - territories that lie on opposite sides of Israel. Hamas is committed to Israel's destruction and opposes the peace talks.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said McCain's comments shows "there isn't the faintest hope" for a change in U.S. policies.

Israel Raises Security Alert

Israel declared

a heightened security alert yesterday and barred Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip from entering the country, fearing that Hezbollah guerrillas might try to carry out a major attack during Purim celebrations this week.

The holiday coincides

with the end of a 40-day mourning period for Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a car bombing in Syria last month. Israel denied involvement, but the Lebanese guerrilla group blamed Israel and vowed revenge.

The alert came

amid new signs that Israel is moving closer to a cease-fire with Hamas militants in Gaza. Israeli defense officials said Amos Gilad, a senior Defense Ministry official, traveled to Cairo on Tuesday for talks with Egyptian mediators.

The closure will

remain in effect through Sunday night, the army said. It will not affect Palestinians needing treatment at Israeli hospitals, and cargo crossings will keep operating, a military spokesman said on condition of anonymity.

- Associated Press