Peretz in two minds on Kassam response

Sderot suffers 15th straight day of rocket attacks.

As Kassam rockets battered Sderot for the 15th consecutive day on Monday, Defense Minister Amir Peretz vacillated over how the IDF should respond to the ongoing attacks. "I will do everything possible to avoid an escalation because it would lead to days of Kassam barrages," Peretz said during a meeting with President Moshe Katsav in Sderot on Monday afternoon. Several hours earlier, however, Peretz told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that it appeared likely that the IDF would take the fight to "the next level." "There is no doubt that the terror organizations operating today understand our messages, but if they do not bring calm we will definitely step up operations and stop the fire," Peretz told the committee. MK Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima), the committee chairman, said Israel might target the heads of Hamas, but added that he believed Peretz would first exhaust diplomatic options. "I oppose a ground operation but if quiet does not return... we'll have to transfer the threat to the heads of the Hamas organization," Hanegbi said. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the committee said that right- and left-wing MKs had reached a rare truce as they united to attack the defense minister's policy on the Kassam attacks. "The State of Israel is perceived as weak, and there is full consensus in the committee that without a deterrent operation we will not be able to overcome the threats to Sderot," said MK Effi Eitam (National Union-National Religious Party). "I have never seen in my life such a dismal and confused appearance by a defense minister." According to Eitam, Hamas and Hizbullah know they can launch Kassam rockets at Israel without incurring an appropriate IDF response. Even Labor MK Matan Vilna'i criticized the IDF's policy. "We cannot have a situation where Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] sleeps well at night and our defense minister doesn't," said Vilna'i. Peretz, a long-time resident of Sderot, had complained that he has also felt the effects of the Kassams in his daily life. On Sunday, eight Kassam rockets were fired at Israel. Two of them fell in Sderot, one of which hit an electricity pole and caused brownouts throughout the day. None of the other rockets caused injuries or damage. Over the past several weeks, intelligence officials have repeatedly told the Knesset committee that Hamas was providing assistance to terrorist organizations launching Kassam attacks on Israel. More than 1,000 rockets have been fired at Sderot since the attacks began in September 2000.