RAMALLAH, West Bank — President Barack Obama is meeting Palestinian officials on the second day of his Mideast tour to emphasize the importance of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, a message underscored Thursday when Palestinian militants in Gaza launched rockets into southern Israel.
After a visit to Israel's national museum — where he inspected the Dead Sea Scrolls, which highlight the Jewish people's ancient connection to the land that is now Israel — Obama headed to the West Bank to tell the Palestinians that the creation of a Palestinian state remains a priority for his administration.
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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.
The Palestinians say settlements are a major obstacle and cannot envision a final peace settlement while their state is cut off from Jerusalem and does not include any of the city. They have expressed disappointment that Obama appears to have dropped his first-term insistence that Israel refrain from settlement construction to improve the atmosphere for negotiations.
On Wednesday, Obama reaffirmed the unwavering U.S. 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 Obama began his program Thursday, Israeli police said militants in Gaza had 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 7 a.m. rocket attack, forcing residents on their way to work or school to run to bomb shelters.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, 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.
Over the past decade, Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets and mortar shells at Israel, prompting Israel, with considerable U.S. assistance, to develop its Iron Dome missile defense system, which it credits with intercepting hundreds of rockets.
Immediately after his arrival in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured an Iron Dome battery at Ben Gurion International Airport in a vivid display of U.S. 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.
In contrast to Israel, the Palestinians have shown little excitement over the Obama visit. In the run-up to the visit, demonstrators have defaced and destroyed posters of Obama in an expression of dissatisfaction with U.S. policy in the region.
In Jerusalem earlier Thursday, while examining the Dead Sea Scrolls and during a tour of a high tech exhibit, Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued the easy banter that the two leaders displayed on Wednesday. As Netanyahu read a facsimile of a scroll, Obama marveled that the Hebrew language had not changed much over the centuries.
Before the tech exhibit he was serenaded by Israeli singer Dudu Fisher and he later examined a range of inventions, from a snake robot ("My wife would not like this," Obama declared) to a motorized exoskeleton for people with paralysis of the legs.
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