|Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) speaks during a visit to an Iron Dome anti-rocket system battery deployed near the costal city of Ashkelon, Oct. 24, 2012. Netanyahu said Wednesday afternoon that Israel was "prepared for a much wider and deeper operation" to quell the ongoing rocket salvos by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. (Xinhua/Jini)
JERUSALEM, Oct. 24 (Xinhua) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday afternoon that Israel was "prepared for a much wider and deeper operation" to quell the ongoing rocket salvos by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
"We didn't choose or initiate this escalation," Netanyahu said during a visit to an Iron Dome anti-rocket system battery deployed near the costal city of Ashkelon.
Militants fired 10 rockets at Israeli targets during the prime minister's remarks.
Earlier in the day, Iron Dome projectiles succeeded in downing a volley of missiles fired at Ashkelon.
Hamas and Popular Resistance Committee groups have taken responsibility for over 70 Grad and Kassam rockets and mortar shells fired into Israeli towns and farms over the past 24 hours.
The barrages left at least five people wounded, including two Thai agricultural workers who were critically injured. Nearly 10 homes sustained direct hits.
Netanyahu said, "In any case, we will continue with targeting and abating (rocket attacks). Anyone who plans to hurt Israeli citizens needs to understand that he will be held responsible."
The Israeli Air Force struck Palestinian launch crews and smuggling tunnels in a series of sorties since Tuesday night in order to suppress the rocket attacks.
The Palestinians reported that nearly a dozen people got wounded in the retaliatory air strikes, many of them militants.
Across the border, hundreds of thousands of Israeli residents have been in bomb shelters and fortified rooms since Tuesday night due to the missiles. Authorities cancelled all school lessons and educational events in the area, and instructed residents to stay within 15-second distance of safe areas.
Netanyahu said he had decided to accept recommendations submitted by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Home Front Command to complete passive defenses for residents in the area.
"As you know, we today are protected in a 4.5-km range from the Gaza border, and up to a distance of 7 km with the help of this Iron Dome batteries like the one you see behind me, and we will continue to add more Iron Dome (batteries) that have worked so well," Netanyahu said.
However, "at the seam between the 4.5 km of full protection and 7 km (covered by) Iron Dome, there is a range within which only educational facilities are protected," the prime minister said.
"Today, after staff work was presented to me, I would adopt protection for this entire area, between 4.5 and 7 km, and in doing so complete the protection for the residents of the south," Netanyahu said.
Barak, who accompanied Netanyahu on the visit, said, "Since the beginning of the month, 15 active terrorists have been killed, and more have been injured. We would like to wish a speedy recovery to our injured officer, Ziv, and to those who were injured (by rockets fired from Gaza) this morning."
"Hamas will receive its punishment for what has happened here," Barak warned, "and no terror element responsible for causing damage in Israel or to Israelis will be spared. We do not intend to allow the continued violation of normal life in the south of Israel."
"The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is vigilant and prepared for any action that should be required -- if it is required -- in order to put an end to this," Barak said, but cautioned that Israel "will continue to work with patience and level-headedness."
"There is no way to eliminate the hatred or hostility entrenched in Hamas," he said, "But the IDF will act on the border from the air, and in any other necessary way, in order to strike down those who attempt to cause us harm."
Elsewhere, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz on Wednesday ordered his forces to sharply cut back the number of troops taking part in the extensive Austere Challenge-12 (AC12) air defense drill with the American army.
The several-week-long drill ranges from the U.S. European Theater to the U.S. naval craft along Israel's shore, and on land to Patriot 3, Arrow II, Iron Dome and David's Sling missile interceptors arrayed in batteries across Israel.
Some 3,500 from the Israeli and U.S. forces are trained in switching from a drill to a genuine air defense to protect the areas where they are deployed from the rocket attacks which took place near Ashkelon.
The IDF has "enough Iron Dome batteries to cover areas in danger," army spokesman Lt.-Col. Avital Leibovich told Xinhua in a conference call on Wednesday morning.
"In light of the escalation in the south and the fear of a worsening situation due to the IDF responses, it's important that the IDF be ready for any scenario from Gaza," a military official said during a tour to hard-hit southern communities.