Israel is planning to escalate its military responses following the weekend Qassam attacks on Ashkelon. At this stage, the IDF will not enter the Gaza Strip and carry out a ground-based operation to distance Qassam rocket launchers from Israeli communities – but artillery and aerial attacks on access routes and rocket launching cells in northern Gaza will be increased.
On Sunday morning, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz will brief the government on the escalation in Qassam attacks. On Thursday, Mofaz ordered an increase in Israeli responses to the attacks, and following the end of Sunday's meeting, pressure could be increased on Qassam rocket launchers from Gaza.
Among options open to the IDF: A widening of targeted assassinations from the air, an increase in artillery shelling at the open spaces from where the rockets are fired, and a striking of the access routes to the Qassam launch zones by Air Force jets.
Government ministers have expressed concern over the attacks on the weekend and for the citizens of Sderot, Ashkelon, and other Gaza border communities. On Saturday, two Qassam rockets were fired, and four more were fired on Friday.
The government said it is unwilling to accept the new reality facing southern communities, which constantly face the rockets and the sounds of artillery shells by the IDF.
Ahead of the government meeting, ministers said they will seek pressure from the U.S. and demands of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to stop the rockets, in order to prevent a dangerous deterioration of the region.
One of the ministers told Ynet that among the possible recommendations, the option of a ground based operation into Gaza to physically remove the Qassam launching cells was possible. However, he added, in light of the sensitive diplomatic situation, that recommendation is not an option that will be realized at this stage.
Dichter: If we have no option – we'll enter Gaza
Former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, who spoke at a Kadima elections meeting in Ashkelon, said that the option of returning to Gaza is a reasonable possibility for the army and its fight against the Qassams.
Dichter said that the Qassams had no connection to the disengagement. "We are disconnected from Gaza more than we were in 1994, and since the disengagement we have not had one casualty from terrorism from Gaza. That is true despite what I am hearing all the time from some," he said.
Dichter, an Ashkelon resident, said that he, like all the city's residents, heard the sounds of explosions and IDF operations in Gaza on Saturday. He added that the Qassams reached Ashkelon before the disengagement.
"It's better to hear the sounds of the IDF and the thunder of the guns than the falling of a Qassam near the power station. If there is no option, we will have to go into Gaza. A brave decision needs to be taken. The IDF is operating though planes and cannons, and if that doesn't seem to be working, we'll go to the next stage."
Dichter also spoke about the issue of suicide bombers and what they believed waited for them, saying: "The 72 virgins waiting for them look more like Hanan Ashrawi than Madonna."
Meanwhile, American envoy David Welsch is expected to meet with Mofaz on Sunday, as well as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. They are expected to discuss, among other, the escalation in Qassam rocket attacks.
The central issue, however, is expected to be the establishment of a Hamas government and the international policy against the PA. Israel is expected to ask that the U.S. lead the international campaign against Hamas.
Shmulik Hadad contributed to this report