Defense Minister: Broad Gaza Operation Will Delay Gilad Shalit's Release

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday that Hezbollah had tripled its rocket strength since the 2006 war in Lebanon and now possesses 42,000 rockets, some of which are capable of striking Ashkelon, Yerucham, and Dimona.

In a rare speech to the Knesset plenum, Barak blasted critics who had called for a massive offensive in the Gaza Strip, saying that Israel would not become hostage to a lone Qassam rocket.

He called Pakistan, which has atom bombs, long-range SS missiles and F-16 planes that can carry atom bombs, the "ultimate nightmare" and warned that "Hezbollah's integration into the Lebanese system would expose Lebanon and its infrastructures more than ever to a future IDF strike."

Barak, whose Labor Party is plunging in the polls, lashed out at Kadima and the right wing. He repeatedly called the right wing politicians "ranters and ravers who speak in praise of war" and reminded Kadima of the mishandled Lebanon War.

"A Gaza operation will not hasten the return of Gilad Shalit," Barak declared in reference to the IDF soldier held captive by Hamas for more than two years. Israel would soon need to make tough decisions on the matter, he warned.

Barak suggested to those urging a single crushing blow in the Gaza Strip, to "stop and think. It's been two years since the Second Lebanon War. Before sending soldiers into battle, we must look into the eyes of every mother and father and say that we did everything before sending them."

He told the right wing parties "there are no instant solutions to the Hamas threat in Gaza. This is not a reality show. If you want to reoccupy the Gaza Strip, say it out loud and say what it means, too. I'm not the minister of war but of defense."

The temporary cease-fire in Gaza allows Israel to better prepare, giving it greater flexibility of action regarding Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, Barak added. "This is too serious a subject for a political argument."

Drawing a parallel to the Gaza situation, he alluded to the markedly strengthened Hezbollah and asked, "Does anyone truly want to reoccupy Lebanon?"

Barak spoke at an urgent Knesset debate on the situation of the communities along the Gaza Strip border called by the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu factions in both the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee session and the Knesset plenum. Not being a Knesset member, Barak usually leaves the ties with the parliament to his deputy, Matan Vilnay.

Likud faction whip MK Gideon Saar summed up the debate saying that for a year and a half, since Barak became defense minister, he had not replied to motions for the agenda. He suggested that Barak's speeches were intended to revive his party ahead of the approaching elections.

"I conclude that you arrived either because of the polls or because you're afraid that in the next Knesset you will no longer be in the same position, or both of the above," Saar said after Barak's address.

Barak said that before the truce some 500 rockets had landed in the Gaza border communities every month, and that during the truce the number of rocket landings was reduced to ten. "In recent weeks the number has gone up to about one third of the pre-truce level but the wave is dying down," he said.

MK Michael Eitan (Likud), who recently moved to Sderot, interrupted him. "What's a third? Give us a number, 150, 200 is nothing?...what are you, a statistician?"

"Why aspire to ten? Why not aspire to zero?" Eitan asked.

"I can see it annoys you that this business is calming down," Barak retorted.