Israel will fortify some 1,800 homes and public buildings in 26 communities within 7 km. of the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday.Netanyahu, who spoke during a visit to an Iron Dome battery near Ashkelon with Defense Minister Ehud Barak as the rockets continued to pound the South, said he decided to accept the recommendation of the Defense and the Home Front Defense ministries to widen the radius around Gaza that will receive full protection against rocket and mortar fire. Until now this protective umbrella was spread around communities within 4.5 km. of Gaza. Communities between 4.5 and 7 km. from the Strip had their schools fortified with safe rooms, and were also covered by Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries, but their homes were not fortified.Now, Netanyahu said, those communities would be fully protected.“We did not choose this escalation and did not initiate it,” the prime minister said of the current attacks from the Gaza Strip. “But if they continue we are prepared for a much wider and deeper action. In any event we will continue with our preventive actions. Anyone who attacks Israeli citizens needs to know that he will pay.”Citizens and municipal heads in communities bordering the Strip have been complaining for years about the lack of the necessary protection from the rocket and mortar attacks, with some asking why it took Netanyahu this long to come to the conclusion that the added protection is needed. Voices were also raised linking his declaration on Wednesday to the upcoming elections.Barak, asked about this claim during a Channel 2 interview, said work on fortifying the communities was beginning now because “we have succeeded in convincing the relevant authorities.”Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, at the start of a meeting with visiting EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said the situation in the South was “completely unacceptable.”Israel would not tolerate the situation to continue as is for long, Liberman said, warning that “I think we are before a serious escalation.”He called on Ashton and the EU to be more involved “not only with demands to Israel to alleviate the measures against Gaza, but to stop this terrorist activity, the smuggling of explosive and weapons.”Ashton also met with Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, who said that no one in Europe, Asia or America would tolerate a situation where “there are a million people, mothers and children, sitting in shelters and being bombed.”“We are behaving with a great deal of patience; we don’t want to see anyone being killed in Gaza, but no one in the world could agree to the current situation,” the president said.Peres also referred to Tuesday’s visit to Gaza by the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad al- Thani, saying when he “comes with lots of money and donates it for construction, we have no problem with that. But Europe must understand that the money isn’t being used for construction, but rather to fire and to kill.”Liberman was less diplomatic in regards to the emir, saying in an Israel Radio interview that the Qataris were a “little intoxicated by power” and were exaggerating “their self-importance.”He said that Qatar’s objective was to “be on the map,” and that this was “confusing their thinking.”The foreign minister added that the Qataris were thinking of themselves as a “regional power, using their money in Al Jazeera and the Arab League to play on the world stage.“All their assistance to Gaza does not go to housing or rehabilitation, it goes to terrorism,” Liberman said.Netanyahu, meanwhile, spoke on the way to the Iron Dome battery with the mother of Capt. Ziv Shilon, the officer severely wounded Tuesday on the border with Gaza.“I told her that we will do everything to help Ziv’s rehabilitation, and I want to wish – in the name of Israel – a speedy recovery to Ziv. Ziv, be strong, the entire nation is embracing you.”Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.