West Bank hosts Obama, Gaza sends rockets

The day President Obama held a press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Gaza fired two rockets into southern Israel, starkly illustrating Palestinians' internal divides.

Larry Downing/REUTERS
US President Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (l.) review troops during an arrival ceremony at the Muqata Presidential Compound in the West Bank City of Ramallah March 21, 2013.
RIch Claubaugh/Staff
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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A pair of rockets launched from Gaza hit the southern Israeli town of Sderot today, amid President Obama's first state visit to Israel and just hours before he was due to meet with the Palestinian president in the West Bank.

The rocket attack is a reminder that even if the president manages to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table, he still has to contend with the more radical Hamas in Gaza, over which the Palestinian Authority has no leverage.

The Associated Press reports that the attacks caused no injuries, though one rocket did hit the courtyard of a house in Sderot, causing minor damage, while the other landed in a field. Two more launches were detected in Gaza, but the rockets landed in the Palestinian territory.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, AP adds.

Haaretz notes that a senior Hamas official earlier this week "threatened retaliation against Israel for what he called frequent violations of the ceasefire agreement, by Israel." Haaretz says he referred to "a number of incidents where IDF forces opened fire at Palestinians approaching the Gaza security fence." The newspaper adds that today's attack was the second rocket attack from Gaza in less than a month.

Israeli officials told Haaretz that Israel was not expected to respond at this time. "The Israeli response will come at the right time and the right place," they said.

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Obama later met in the West Bank, criticized the attack, Reuters reports the official Palestinian Wafa news agency as saying.

"We condemn violence against civilians regardless of its source, including rocket firing," he said. "We are in favor of maintaining mutual and comprehensive calm in Gaza."

The attack highlights the difficult task facing Obama, who hopes to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Even if Israel and the PA agree to meet and relaunch peace talks, the PA has no authority over Hamas-run Gaza, which could take steps to derail any progress. Any reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions seems far off, and even Palestinians in the West Bank are becoming impatient.

 The Christian Science Monitor reports:

In Israel, there is cautious optimism that Obama's visit will nudge leaders back to the negotiating table. Many Palestinians are disillusioned by the lack of action after his Cairo speech, however, and recent unrest has sparked some speculation about a third intifada, or uprising.

Peace advocates on both sides say the window for a viable two-state solution is fast closing – at best, in two years – largely because of expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Still, the first day of Obama's visit, spent in Israel and including appearances with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, went well. It appears to have shored up a US-Israeli relationship that had seemed tattered as recently as last year, reports the Monitor's Christa Case Bryant.

...Overall, Obama managed to sail right through the awkward moments and hit all the notes Israelis wanted to hear. He outlined his vision of a two-state solution as a strong Jewish state next to a sovereign Palestinian one, without mentioning anything about curbing Israeli settlements in the West Bank; promised continued foreign aid; insisted on calling Netanyahu by his nickname, Bibi; complimented his wife Sara, saying the Netanyahu boys must have gotten their good looks from her; and, in a more serious moment, recognized the sacrifice of Netanyahu's family, who lost his brother Yoni in the 1976 Entebbe operation to rescue more than 100 Israeli and Jewish passengers whose plane had been hijacked. ...

One senior Israeli official who was asked ahead of time about what Obama would have to do to make his visit a success, reportedly replied simply, "Land." Indeed, before Obama even addresses the Israeli public in a speech tomorrow; before he visits the Dead Sea Scrolls, thus implicitly acknowledging that Israel's right to exist here dates back thousands of years before the Holocaust; before he visits the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism ... in the eyes of many Israelis, his mission is already accomplished.

For the Palestinians, the feelings are quite the reverse. 

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