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Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Thursday that Israel would be able to obliterate rocket fire from the Gaza Strip in the near future.

"The government will work toward an absolute end to Qassam rocket fire, and we are not talking about a prolonged period of months," he said while on a visit to Ashkelon where a rocket struck on Wednesday, wounding some 90 people in various conditions.

Barak added that Wednesday's attack "proves that despite our military action in Gaza, the militants are still firing. If the rocket had hit the main rafter near the building's roof, we would be attending funerals today and not just inspecting the situation on the ground."

Speaking to Ashkelon Mayor Roni Mehatzri, Barak said: "Your ability to keep the city's residents involved in their daily routines is essential and important to us, and will enable the army to act in the correct manner."

Barak was accompanied by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai and GOC Home Front Command Yair Golan on his tour of the stricken mall.

After his visit, Barak was briefed potential rocket attacks on Ashkelon from representatives of the GOC Home Front Command, police, Magen David Adom and fire department representatives.

Meanwhile, Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin told Haaretz this week that within two years, all communities in a 40-kilometer radius of Gaza could be vulnerable to rocket attacks. Olmert: Israel is committed to stopping Gaza rocket attacks

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told participants at the "Facing Tomorrow" presidential conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday that Israel's government was committed to stopping the rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, moments after a Grad rocket slammed into an Ashkelon shopping mall, wounding at least 80 people.

The prime minister condemned the attack, saying "what happened today was entirely intolerable and unacceptable."

He went on to say that the government would "take the necessary steps so that this will stop."

During a joint press conference with Bush prior to the attack, Olmert had foreshadowed the events of the day when he said that Israel would not tolerate attacks by Hamas, adding that he hoped Israel would not have to "act against Hamas in other ways with military power that Israel hasn't yet started to use in a serious manner."

Barak was notified of the rocket attack in Ashkelon during his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday.

Barak invited Rice to visit the site of the attack so that she could form her own impressions of the reality to which the city's residents are susceptible.

Barak and MKs Eli Yishai, Avi Dichter and Itzhak Cohen said, in response to the rocket attack, that they would not attend a scheduled dinner with U.S. President George W. Bush. Instead, the four ministers planned to travel to Ashkelon to inspect the situation on the ground.

MKs blast government foot-dragging on rockets

Upon arriving at the scene Wednesday night, Yishai said, "We should not have gotten into this situation, and it is time for us to speak less and act more."

Likud MK Yuval Steinitz said in response that "the government of Israel, which has time and time again been warned of the foot-dragging against Hamas, cannot wash its hands of this. Instead of negotiating an imaginary peace, it is time for the government to instruct the IDF to decide the real war."

MK Aryeh Eldad on Wednesday night told Ashkelon's mayor to call for an immediate general strike in the city, including the education, trade and transportation systems, until the government "assumes responsibility once again for the lives of its citizens."

In an interview with Army Radio, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said that Israel must break the Hamas stronghold in Gaza. Sneh explained that the Qassam rocket was manufactured in Iran and launched from Gaza, with the intention of hitting Ashkelon. He added, "This is part of the Iranian war on Israel, which intends to gain control of the Middle East."

Sneh said that Wednesday's attack was a reminder of why Israel is not interested in negotiating with Hamas. "There is no foundation for it and we got the proof for that today."