Dichter: Sderot residents are in game of 'Gaza Roulette'

Barak deflects 'anxious talk,' says current policy will continue.

For the second week in a row, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter sharply criticized the government's policies toward stopping rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, saying that the residents of Sderot were the unwitting participants in a deadly game of "Gaza Roulette." Dichter, who said he has held a number of meetings with Sderot residents, said they were losing hope and that it was simply "miracles and luck" that have prevented fatalities from the rocket attacks. "We have seen people injured and property damage [from the recent barrage of attacks]," he said. "Fortunately no one was killed due to rocket fire, but the government cannot in general base its strategy on luck, and particularly not in Sderot." Dichter said that following last week's barrage of rockets - 130 fell from Wednesday to Saturday - he felt the cabinet should receive a briefing not from Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, head of Military Intelligence's research division, but rather from the Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi himself. He said he feared the government was becoming "desensitized" to the plight of Sderot residents. Dichter's comments about the loss of hope and the need to change military tactics contrasted with what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at the start of the cabinet meeting, and elicited a sharp response from Defense Minister Ehud Barak. As opposed to Dichter, Olmert - who toured Sderot and neighboring communities Thursday evening - said he found "impressive determination, fortitude, fewer complaints but not less pain and concern, and great appreciation for the [IDF] activity being carried on there." Olmert said he realized that there was a need to be sensitive to the consequences of the relentless attacks on the residents of the western Negev, and said what the residents were facing "cannot be measured solely in terms of the number of those wounded." At the same time, Olmert said the activity of the IDF and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) last week in response to the attacks was "an outstanding expression of our unwillingness to compromise with terrorists and of our desire to strike at them with full force." Barak took umbrage at Dichter's criticism of the failure to stop the rocket and mortar attacks, saying that the current policies needed to continue. He called Dichter's comments "anxious talk," the likes of which he had not heard around the cabinet table for years. He assured the ministers that Israel would find a solution to the Kassam rockets, just as it had found a solution to the suicide bombings. Barak also took Dichter to task for criticizing the IDF and Ashkenazi during a period when the IDF was fighting daily on different fronts. He said that the IDF had targeted the rocket launchers in Gaza last week, closed the crossing into the Gaza Strip and "continued to plan for a large-scale operation." Dichter, however, was not placated. "We have to create deterrence," he said, and added that "everyone knows very well that there are things the IDF can do that we are not doing yet. We have to give the IDF an order to do whatever it takes to stop the artillery fire toward Israel, not to decrease it or to bring it to minimum, but to stop it at a price that will be paid by the Palestinians." Before the cabinet meeting, Dichter warned that Sderot could collapse if the rocket fire were not stopped. Dichter took a similarly critical tack at last week's cabinet meeting as well, saying that the IDF had to change its "mode of operation" to put an end to what he described as a war of attrition. Ashkenazi told the Herzliya Conference on Sunday that the IDF would "continue to do everything to return the quiet and security to Sderot." At the same time, he said that Israel would act "wisely" and "reasonably" and would "not let emotion lead it." "Even if it takes awhile, this goal will be achieved," Ashkenazi said. Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, meanwhile, warned at the conference that Israel's patience was running thin. "I do not suggest that anyone interpret our restraint as a lack of strength," she said. "We are very close to the point where the the right of the residents of Sderot and the western Negev to live in peace and security will obligate Israel to abandon the last remaining vestiges of restraint." In a related development, a ministerial committee headed by Vice Premier Haim Ramon to recommend whether to modify the "blood on the hands" criteria for releasing Palestinian prisoners met again Sunday. The committee, which is expected to change the criteria to allow additional prisoners to be released in return for kidnapped IDF Cpl. Gilad Schalit, is expected to present its recommendations to Olmert within the next several days.