PM on Evacuation of Sderot Residents: We Have Never Fled

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held a special meeting yesterday at his office to discuss ways of improving the protection of buildings in communities close to the border of the Gaza Strip. The meeting was held in the wake of intensifying Qassam rocket attacks and the evacuation operation of Sderot residents by the billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak.

At least 11 Qassam rockets struck the western Negev yesterday. A total of five rockets hit the city of Sderot, where one man sustained serious injuries when a rocket slammed into the market area; two others were treated for light injuries. During the evening hours, two more rockets hit a Sderot neighborhood and a number of residents were treated for shock.

At the cabinet meeting yesterday, Ministers Avi Dichter, Avigdor Lieberman and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer were highly critical of Defense Minister Amir Peretz for what they described as the Israel Defense Force's inability to counter the Qassam attacks. Both Olmert and Peretz responded angrily to the criticism.

"Get used to the fact that you are also part of the government, not members of some debate team," Olmert retorted. "If you have practical proposals, make them during the cabinet meeting."

Peretz said that "the agitation of the ministers gives the mistaken impression that we are not doing all that is necessary. We are operating according to needs and not according to declarations and demonstrations."

During yesterday's meeting, Olmert vociferously opposed the notion that residents of a city under attack should be evacuated, and criticized Gaydamak. "Throughout our history in this country, during much more difficult days, we never fled our homes," he said, adding that such short-term solutions "may have long-term disastrous consequences."

"We do not want to remove the people from their homes. Specific cases will be handled, but to load people on buses and drive them to five-star hotels? No way is this the government's policy," Olmert said, referring to Gaydamak's evacuation of Sderot residents for short stays at Eilat hotels.

Olmert called these efforts "tricks of public relations people and millionaires, carried out at the expense of other people for ulterior motives."

The prime minister's stance was backed by Sderot mayor, Eli Moyal, who said that "all of us, the national and local leadership, must decide that we are not leaving this city. We are not going to cave in."

Peretz said that "every decision to evacuate requires serious consideration. I do not think that Israel should get used to scenes of flight. We will institute a command center in Sderot and local authorities in order to assist the residents."

During a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office, there was a debate over the question of whether to use the "code red" (formerly "Red Dawn") rocket-alert system also in Ashkelon and not just in Sderot. Defense Minister Peretz supported the idea and said that if intelligence exists on rockets being fired at Ashkelon, the residents should be informed.

However, the director general of the Prime Minister's office, Ra'anan Dinur, strongly opposed the idea, and explained that the system is unable to distinguish between parts of the city, which would bring Ashkelon to a standstill.

"Such decisions are not made in a 30-minute meeting," Dinur commented, suggesting that the matter be brought to the cabinet for discussion because of the significance of its repercussions.

Askhelon Mayor Roni Mehatzri supported Dinur's objections.

Peretz also recommended that reinforced security rooms be built in homes to better protect the communities near the Gaza Strip that are exposed to the rocket barrages. "This way we will boost the feeling of security of the individuals, and we will also give the residents a feeling that the country cares for them," he said.

It was decided to postpone a decision on this matter to a later date. However, a recommendation by the Defense Ministry to fortify educational institutions against rocket attacks was accepted. In elementary schools, the homerooms will be reinforced, and in middle and high schools, pupils will be provided with secured hallways.

"According to Home Front data," the announcement from the Prime Minister's Office read, "to date 19 out of 24 schools in Sderot and towns near the Gaza Strip have been reinforced, and the remaining schools will be readied in a few days."

The announcement also said that 56 kindergartens have been prepared to withstand rocket attacks, 25 others will be ready by month's end, and the remaining 70 will be reinforced by late March, 2007.

To date the state has invested NIS 285 million in defensive construction efforts in locales near the Gaza Strip, NIS 75 million of which was invested in schools.