Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter warned Sunday of a tenfold increase in the number of Israelis subjected to a "war of attrition" should Ashkelon and nearby communities also fall under the threat of Palestinian terror and Qassam rocket fire.
"We must check to see where we went wrong and deal with the problem of Sderot if we do not want to face the same problem when Ashkelon, Ofakim and Netivot will enter the cycle of rocket fire and terror," he said during the weekly cabinet meeting. "We must complete the fortification plan for Sderot and the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip."
According to him, Palestinian terror organizations, led by Hamas, are "conducting a war of attrition" against Sderot and the rest of the western Negev communities.
The minister said the number of Israelis facing the threat of Palestinian terror may increase from 25,000 to 250,000.
"Qassam attacks are being carried out daily and we have also seen an increase in mortar fire directed at IDF bases near the Strip," Dichter told the ministers. "Statistics indicating an 8% drop in the number of students in Sderot are extremely worrying. We must not allow any mistakes that may raise the number of Israeli communities facing the Qassam threat."
During the cabinet meeting, ministers were updated by IDF Home Front Command officials on the progress made in the fortification of educational and public institutions in the Negev region, which is expected to cost between 1 and 1.5 billion shekels ($258-387 million).
The army also presented cabinet members with a fortification plan that would also include Israeli communities such as Ashkelon, Netivot and Ofakim, which are within the range of the Grad missile (range of about 25km) and other surface-to surface missiles the Palestinian terror groups have in their possession.
The cost of this plan is estimated at NIS 5.5 billion ($1.4 billion).
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Knesset's State Control Committee last week that Israel should not enter a process of "over-fortification", and officials in his office said the State was investing hundreds of millions of shekels in the development of rocket-interception systems to be placed along the border with Gaza.