SDEROT, Israel—Two rockets fired by militants in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip on Thursday hit southern Israel, police said, sparking a top-level condemnation from visiting US President Barack Obama.
Obama arrived in Israel on Wednesday for his first visit since being elected president more than four years ago, and was 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 the Israeli accusations.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP that “one (rocket) exploded in the back yard of a house in Sderot, causing damage, and the second landed in a field.”
Sderot, very close to the border with Hamas, 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.
The US president condemned the attack in his remarks at a joint news conference with Abbas after meeting the Palestinian leader.
“We saw the continuing threat from Gaza again overnight with the rockets which targeted Sderot,” Obama said.
“We condemn this violation of this important ceasefire that protects both Israelis and Palestinians, a violation that Hamas has a responsibility to prevent.”
Before the news conference a senior Israeli official told AFP that “Israel will be watching very closely president Abbas’s remarks today in Ramallah to see if he condemns this morning’s rocket attacks,” the official told AFP.
Abbas did not address the attack in his public remarks with Obama, but political adviser Nimr Hammad quoted him as saying that “We condemn violence against civilians, whatever its source, including the firing of rockets.”
“We are for mutual and comprehensive pacification in the Gaza Strip, and we supported the (Israel-Hamas ceasefire) agreement that was reached through Egyptian mediation on November 21, 2012,” Hammad added.
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 Zuhri told AFP.
On Thursday afternoon, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon ordered that the Kerem Shalom goods terminal be closed in response to the attack.
Israel also “decided that the Erez pedestrian terminal would work on a low scale, for humanitarian cases only,” a statement from the ministry read.
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.