Rockets hit Israel as Obama prepares to meet Palestinians

JERUSALEM (AP) - On the second day of a Mid-East tour, United States President Barack Obama is set to emphasise the importance of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, a message underscored on Thursday when Palestinian militants in Gaza launched rockets into southern Israel.

On Wednesday, Mr Obama reaffirmed the US' unwavering commitment to Israel's security and noted there had been no fatal attacks on Israelis from the West Bank, which is controlled by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. That calm has not extended to Gaza, which is run by the militant Islamic Hamas movement.

As Mr Obama began his programme on Thursday, Israeli police said militants in Gaza fired two rockets at the southern town of Sderot.

One of the rockets exploded in the courtyard of a house in Sderot early in the morning, causing damage but no injuries, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. The other landed in an open field. Sirens wailed in Sderot shortly after the 7am rocket attack, forcing residents on their way to work or school to run to bomb shelters.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Mr Obama visited the border town, which is frequently targeted by rocket attacks from the nearby Gaza Strip. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

After a visit to Israel's national museum - where he was inspecting the Dead Sea Scrolls, which highlight the Jewish people's ancient connection to the land that is now Israel - Mr Obama will head to the West Bank to tell the Palestinians that the creation of a Palestinian state remains a priority.

He is not bringing a new plan to relaunch peace talks, but in meetings with the Palestinians and a speech to Israeli students later in the day, he will appeal to both sides to halt unilateral actions that make negotiations more difficult.

Those troublesome actions include continued construction of Jewish housing settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians and repeated Palestinian efforts to achieve recognition at the United Nations in the absence of a peace agreement.

Over the past decade, Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets and mortar shells at Israel, prompting Israel, with considerable US assistance, to develop its Iron Dome missile defence system, which it credits with intercepting hundreds of rockets.

Immediately after his arrival in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Mr Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured an Iron Dome battery at Ben Gurion International Airport in a vivid display of US security assistance to Israel.

Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007 after ousting the rival Palestinian Fatah group in bloody street fighting. Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas, now govern only part of the West Bank.

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