Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said Monday that the army is ready to expand its operations against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, but is waiting on orders from the political echelon.

"The IDF is prepared and ready to deepen and expand the operations in Gaza as much as necessary, in accordance with [the political echelon's] decisions," said Ashkenazi during a conference of top military officers at the IAF base in Hatzor.

"The coming year will be full of security challenges, and IDF must be prepared to meet them," he added.

During the conference, IDF officers presented the army's goals and working plans for the coming year, at times touching on the lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War as well as the Winograd Committee's final report on the war.

'We are still examining the report in order to determine whether there is something that we have not shown the spotlight on in the past year and a half and demands attention," said a senior officer. "It isn't clear that there is such a thing."

Barak: Israel won't be deterred from acting against Qassams

Defense Minister Ehud Barak also attended the conference, hours after vowing that Israel would not be deterred from taking the necessary military action to restore security to the residents of the Qassam rocket-bombarded south.

"The IDF will act in any way necessary in order to restore security and quiet to Sderot and the Gaza border area," Barak told the Labor Party Knesset faction on Monday. "The primary objective - halting Qassam rocket fire and significantly reducing the strengthening [of terror organizations] through weapons smuggling."

The defense minister said Sderot residents have a right to be angry. "The fury and pain are natural, human, and justified," he said. "The government has the responsibility to ensure their security, to help in any way possible, and to embrace them warmly."

"We are open to any idea," Barak continued. "There are a lot of people who have come to me with various ideas. It is important that we listen but keep them to ourselves. When concrete modes of operation are discusses on the radio, they are liable to serve our enemies."

"You don't need to be a military expert in order to understand that if you identify a concrete goal - it won't happen," he said. "If we identify the structures that we are going to strike, they won't be there. I recommend that all of us avoid detailed public discussion on technical operational aspects."

Earlier Monday, Barak said that he had instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for a possible wide-scale operation in the Gaza Strip in response to the ongoing Qassam rocket attacks from the coastal territory.

Barak told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel would not rule out any possible course of action to bring quiet back to the western Negev and security to the residents of Sderot and nearby communities.

"IDF operations are continuing day and night and will even be expanded," hen told committee members.

The defense minister said that in recent days, the IDF has killed 61 Palestinian militants. He added that over the last four months, 200 militants have been killed by Israeli fire.

Qassam fire "will not stop in two days or even in two weeks, but the army will stop the phenomenon," said Barak.

During a meeting on security developments Sunday, and at the weekly cabinet meeting, Barak and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel needs to continue its preparations for a large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip, but that there is no point in rushing into one.

Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi recently gave orders for such preparations, but army sources insist that they have not received any order to initiate an operation. Military sources said that such operation is not likely to begin for several more weeks.

Barak has reiterated that Israel will not embark on a military operation unless Israel defines its goals, "has a [political] exit plan" and prepares the ground for broad international support for its action.