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Rockets fall on southern Israeli city as Bush arrives
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    JERUSALEM — Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip bombarded southern Israel with rocket and mortar fire Wednesday, striking a house in a border town shortly before President Bush arrived in the Mideast to try to build momentum for stalled peace talks.
    Bush landed around midday. His schedule for his three-day visit to Israel and the West Bank does not include stops areas near or in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Islamic Hamas militants who are not a party to negotiations.
    Israeli police said 12 projectiles were fired Wednesday, including seven that landed inside Israel.
    One rocket hit the home of Sderot resident Danny Dahan. Speaking from the hospital where he was treated for shock, he told Army Radio that he had nearly been hit several times in recent years. In the latest attack, the rocket tore through the ceiling and landed on his son’s bed, he said.
    ‘‘Rockets have been raining on this town for years and no one is doing anything,’’ a crying Dahan told the radio. He did not suffer any serious injuries.
    Israel is pursuing a peace agreement with the moderate Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules from the West Bank. At the same time, it is battling Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June after routing Abbas’ forces. The U.S. and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist group.
    At a November peace conference in Annapolis, Md., Israel and the Palestinians pledged to try to reach a final agreement before Bush leaves office.
    Palestinian hard-liners in Gaza staged small Bush protests, underscoring the deep political split with West Bank moderates who have welcomed his visit as an important gesture to the Palestinians.
    Among those marching was a shadowy al-Qaida-inspired group, which for the first time appeared in public with rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and uttered vague threats against U.S. targets.
    In Hamas-ruled Gaza, even supporters of Abbas were critical of the U.S. leader.
    Some 200 supporters allied with Abbas’ Fatah movement and other non-Islamic groups urged Bush to abandon what they said was his pro-Israel bias.
    ‘‘We call on President Bush in his visit to adopt an equal standard, and not to continue the biased policy in favor of the occupation government,’’ a senior Fatah leader in Gaza, Zakariya al-Agha, told the marchers.
    The rocket barrage came shortly after Israeli forces struck three groups of militants firing projectiles toward Israel. Palestinian medical officials said one Hamas-affiliated militant was killed and six others were wounded.
    Israeli forces strike at militants nearly every day in response to rocket fire, and dozens have been killed in recent weeks. However, the military activity has not been able to halt the attacks, which have killed 12 people in six years and made life harrowing for thousands of Israelis.
    Bush’s challenge is to convince skeptical governments that, with just a year remaining in his presidency and Americans deep in the process of selecting his successor, he is willing to devote the time and effort necessary to bridge decades of differences in this troubled region.
    Expectations of success are low, and no one is predicting breakthroughs during Bush’s eight-day visit to Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
    Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas agreed in a meeting Tuesday to overcome disputes over Israeli construction in contested areas and ongoing violence and finally instruct their negotiators to begin tackling the core issues of a final peace agreement.
    An Olmert ally said Wednesday that he believed Bush’s visit would help the sides reach an agreement.
    ‘‘I am happy that we are beginning to talk on the subjects that perhaps we should have begun to talk about earlier,’’ Vice Premier Haim Ramon told Army Radio. ‘‘Both sides pay heed to his (Bush’s) requests and his wishes and his visit will certainly accelerate the talks.’’
    Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said that Bush’s visit is important as a show of support for the negotiations. ‘‘We don’t expect President Bush to come here and conduct the negotiations between us and the Israelis, and we don’t expect President Bush to make the decisions required by us and the Israelis,’’ he said.
    Hamas was to hold a large protest rally later Wednesday, and dozens of Hamas supporters marched through the streets beforehand, denouncing Bush as a war criminal. Artists affiliated with Hamas were seen working on a large painting of Bush, portraying him as the head of the snake being hit with a shoe by a Palestinian child.
    Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, said Abbas should not rely on the U.S. or ‘‘run after the illusion of so-called peace.’’
    In the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, about 20 masked supporters of an al-Qaida-inspired group, the so-called ‘‘Army of the Nation,’’ displayed weapons in a first public appearance.
    The men wore black robes over above-the-ankle black pants. Some wore red headbands with the words ‘‘death squad.’’
    A spokesman for the group, who only gave his nom de guerre, Abu Hafs, said Bush was ‘‘not welcome’’ in the Palestinian territories. ‘‘We are coming, not to Bush in Tel Aviv, but God willing to Washington,’’ he said.
    He described members of the terror network al-Qaida as ‘‘brothers,’’ with similar methods and ideology, but added that ‘‘there is no complete connection’’ to his group.
    Abu Hafs’s group has claimed responsibility for several recent mortar and rocket attacks on Israeli border communities.
    In recent months, several al-Qaida-inspired groups have emerged in Gaza, though possible links to the terror network are murky. An almost complete closure of Gaza since the Hamas takeover in June has driven Gazans deeper into poverty, creating fertile ground for militant groups.
    There has been intense speculation about a possible al-Qaida presence in the Palestinian territories, since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
    Palestinian intelligence officials believe the terrorist network has formed some sleeper cells in Gaza, and suspect possible al-Qaida involvement in several spectacular attacks on Palestinian security chiefs since 2004. Israel also insists al-Qaida has put down roots in Gaza, a claim denied by Hamas.
    Some Gazans recalled the visit of President Bill Clinton to Gaza in 1998. At the time, peace hopes ran high, and he was given a hero’s welcome.
    ‘‘We were full of joy and hope on that day (of Clinton’s visit),’’ said Shawki Abdel Rahman, 59, a retired teacher, who watched Bush’s arrival on a large-screen TV in a Gaza electronics store.
    ‘‘Today, it’s the opposite,’’ he said. ‘‘There is no peace and no joy over this visit.’’
    Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Khan Younis.

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