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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Iran's fingerprints were all over the recent escalation in Gaza and the Kassam attacks, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told The Jerusalem Post Monday night. Teheran ordered the terrorist groups to escalate the conflict in an effort to distract the world's attention from its nuclear program, he said.
"Everything is being organized by Iran," Sneh said. "All of the terrorist groups are supported directly by Iran, which pays for all of the military training and the weapons."
Sneh's JPost blog
Sneh also said that Israel will need to consider escalating military operations in the Gaza Strip if rockets begin to fall in Netivot, Ashkelon or Kiryat Gat, amid concern that Israel's targeting of Hamas leaders could trigger attacks on cites within a 25 km. radius of Gaza.
Government officials said the concern was that the Palestinians could have the capability to reach southern Ashdod and the western reaches of Beersheba.
"We are getting ready for the possibly that the range will increase," Sneh told The Jerusalem Post. "They can increase the range and we need to be ready."
Senior government officials said the likelihood that the Palestinians would fire longer range missiles, capable of doing greater damage than Kassams, was considered when the security cabinet decided Sunday night to target Hamas leaders.
High-ranking defense officials told the Post terrorists had smuggled long-range rockets into Gaza from the Sinai through tunnels underneath the Philadelphi Corridor. Islamic Jihad is known to have a limited number of outdated Grad-model Katyusha rockets, but has yet to fire them at their maximum range of 25 km.
Another concern is that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have succeeded in extending the range of their Kassam rockets. The officials said there were rockets known to reach 15 km., and that it was possible that some could travel farther.
"They are always working to improve rockets and to extend their range," a top defense official said. "If they're not disturbed, with enough time they will eventually succeed."
Hamas officials in Gaza said on Monday that their next target would be Ashkelon.
"We call on our fighters to launch rockets attacks on the settlement of Ashkelon, which was built on Palestinian-owned land," said a Hamas official in the Jabalya refugee camp. "We will force the settlers to run away from Ashkelon as they have already done in the settlement of Sderot. We will continue to fight until the Jews leave all of Palestine."
According to the official, Hamas has developed new rockets capable of reaching Ashkelon and other Israeli cities. "We will turn Ashkelon into a ghost city," he warned. "We will use all methods against the Zionist enemy."
Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders expressed satisfaction with the recent attacks on Sderot, noting that many residents had fled their homes. They also called for the resumption of suicide attacks.
In a series of interviews in the Palestinian media, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders urged Palestinians in the West Bank to kill IDF soldiers and settlers.
The armed wings of Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad said in separate statements that the rocket attacks would continue "until the Zionists flee from Palestine."
The groups vowed to turn the Gaza Strip into a "graveyard" for Israelis if the IDF invaded.
"We will make the Jews drip tears of blood," said Muhammad Abdel Al, a commander of the Popular Resistance Committees, an alliance of several terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip. "We will never find comfort until we shed the blood of the sons of monkeys and pigs."
The IDF Home Front Command began distributing pamphlets to residents of Netivot and other southern towns on Monday, explaining what to do if the rockets come.
Sneh, who is in charge of the Home Front Command on behalf of the Defense Ministry, said that fear of longer-range rockets was behind the decision to distribute the pamphlets throughout the South.
The government has begun discussions on how to provide adequate shelters and secure rooms in areas beyond the immediate proximity of the Gaza Strip, and the Israel Police are planning for situations in which the rockets fired from Gaza reach far beyond Sderot.
Lachish Subdistrict Police spokeswoman Asst.-Supt. Keren Toledano said the police had beefed up their forces in the area, with twice the usual number of police now on duty in Ashkelon.
"We are ready to provide the necessary response," said Toledano, who emphasized that police and the Home Front Command recently participated in exercises simulating multiple simultaneous Kassam strikes throughout the Lachish Subdistrict.
Meanwhile, Ashkelon Mayor Roni Mahatzri asked the government to include his town's southern industrial area within the Gaza-belt communities eligible to be compensated for Kassam damage.
Around 30 factories and small businesses are located in the industrial area adjacent to Ashkelon, which is home to 120,000 residents.
Mahatzri met on Monday morning with Ra'anan Dinur, director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, as a part of the preparations for an escalation of the violence in the area.
Mahatzri said Ashkelon would receive NIS 3 million to help maintain its bomb shelters.
"Ashkelon has around 120 public bomb shelters whose condition are reasonable. However, the Home Front Command found that in case of Kassam attacks, fortified areas will be needed more than bomb shelters," said municipality spokeswoman Anat Berkovitz.
Nevertheless, the government has yet to activate the Color Red early-warning Kassam system in Ashkelon, even though it was deployed and declared operational there by the Home Front Command several months ago, the Post has learned. It was formerly know as the Red Dawn system, but was renamed after girls named Dawn (Shahar in Hebrew) were teased.
According to military sources, the decision to activate the system is in the hands of the government.
Despite daily Kassam attacks, the Home Front Command's Web site was not working on Monday.
Herb Keinon and Shelly Paz contributed to this report.
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