Barak, Livni Clash Over Qatari Aid, Qassam Defense

The pre-election political rivalry between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak ratcheted up a notch yesterday, after the Kadima leader accused her Labor counterpart of harming the security of residents in the south and Barak rejected a Livni-brokered deal that would have allowed a Qatari ship to unload humanitarian aid for Gazans at the Ashdod port.

Meanwhile, as Palestinians repeatedly fired on the Negev yesterday, the cabinet approved Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's proposal to allocate NIS 600 million for the protection of communities located within 4.5 kilometers of the security fence surrounding the Gaza Strip. Local leaders called for rapid implementation of the plan, and dozens of Ashkelon residents rallied to protest the lack of protection at municipal schools.

"I know that this is an intense political season, and I'm aware of the suffering of the residents and the reality of the rockets," Barak said as he headed toward the weekly cabinet meeting yesterday, implying that Livni's accusations that he was harming residents in the south were politically motivated.

One of Barak's supporters was more blunt, saying, "Livni's pointless prattling exceeds the boundaries of good taste."

"There is no lull in Gaza," Livni said a few minutes after Barak made his comments. "Whoever calls it a lull doesn't know what's going on there. Whoever's responsible for defense needs to act; I will act in the political arena."

The barbed comments came after Livni put out a statement Saturday night, following a weekend in which Palestinians fired nine Qassam rockets and several rounds of mortar shells from the Gaza Strip, saying Israel should "respond with fire" to the shelling and calling on the government to reassess the lull. A meeting will take place Wednesday to discuss the matter.

Palestinians fired six additional Qassam rockets and five mortar shells on southern Israel yesterday, some of which hit as Sderot residents were practicing how to respond to a rocket alert. One of the rockets landed at the entrance to Sderot and the others fell in open areas. There were no injuries or damage. The Israel Air Force attacked a rocket launcher in Gaza yesterday, which it apparently hit. The Palestinians have not reported any casualties.

Also yesterday, the 23,000 residents of Kiryat Malakhi received flyers telling them what to do if Qassam rockets hit the southern city, which is located within the 21-kilometer zone the upgraded Qassams are said to be able to reach.

On Saturday night, Barak rejected a deal reached between Livni and the Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr al-Thani, allowing a Qatari ship to dock at Ashdod to unload humanitarian aid for the Palestinians in Gaza. Qatari officials expressed anger and disappointment over the decision, and some Israeli officials said it could damage ties with Qatar.

"Some things are more important than politics," a Foreign Ministry official said. "What's the message to the world? That we want to starve the residents of Gaza?"