Gaza rockets hit southern Israel during Obama visit

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 March, 2013, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 March, 2013, 5:15pm

Two rockets fired by militants in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip on Thursday hit southern Israel as US President Barack Obama was visiting the Jewish state, police said.

Obama arrived in Israel on Wednesday for the first visit of the US president since being elected more than four years ago, and was expected in Ramallah on Thursday for talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Israeli officials pointed the finger at Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, over the rocket attack. The group implicitly denied responsibility, but gave a guarded reaction to Israeli accusations.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that “one [rocket] exploded in the back yard of a house in Sderot, causing damage, and the second landed in a field,” referring to a town very close to the Gaza border, which was visited by Obama on a previous trip in 2008 when he was a senator.

Military officials cited by army radio said they believed the attack was timed deliberately to coincide with Obama’s visit.

A senior Israeli official said they were watching for Palestinian reaction to the rockets, and if the attack would affect reconciliation efforts between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas.

“Israel will be watching very closely president [Mahmud] Abbas’s remarks today in Ramallah to see if he condemns this morning’s rocket attacks,” the official said, adding that “last year... he refused to condemn rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.”

“We will also want to see if he ceases the unity talks with Hamas,” he added, pointing out that the rockets were fired from Hamas-controlled territory.

Hamas said that it “considers talk of rocket fire to be merely Israeli accusations aimed at gaining sympathy from Obama... and inciting him against Palestinians,” its spokesman Sami Abu Zohri said.

There was no immediate comment from the White House on the incident.

On his previous visit to Sderot, Obama had voiced his support for Israel’s refusal to negotiate with the Islamist Hamas movement, which is Abbas’s rival Palestinian faction and has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007.

“If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I would do everything in my power to stop that,” he said.

Sderot mayor David Buskila told army radio that his town “served as a punchbag for Hamas and other terrorist groups, which wanted (with the latest attack) to tell Obama he was not welcome in the region.”

It was only the second such rocket attack since the end of a deadly eight-day confrontation between Israel and Hamas in November which ended with an Egypt-brokered truce that has been almost completely respected.

On February 26, militants fired one rocket which hit near the southern coastal town of Ashkelon, calling it a protest against the death of a Palestinian prisoner in Israeli custody.

During the eight days of bloodshed in November, which cost the lives of 177 Palestinians and six Israelis, the army said 933 rockets hit Israel, while another 421 were intercepted in mid-air by the US-funded Iron Dome air anti-missile system.

Obama visited the vaunted Iron Dome system shortly after arriving in the country on Wednesday afternoon.