Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded to the escalation in the south Wednesday by saying that a ground incursion into Gaza is an option, but that such a step need not be taken hastily.

“If we need a ground operation there will be a ground operation. We will do whatever necessary to stop this wave [of violence],” Barak said during an interview with Israel Radio.

“I trust the IDF’s chief of staff and the head of the Southern Command, and if they believe it’s necessary — and if it’s what the government decides on — then yes, it’s not out of the question,” the defense minister said.

Some 60 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza into Israel between Tuesday night and Wednesday noon, injuring three foreign workers — two of them critically — and forcing schools in affected areas near the Strip to close for the day. The barrage led the IDF to retaliate several times, striking terror squads, some of which were in the process of launching rockets.

When asked whether a new reality was establishing itself in the south, Barak answered: “No, we haven’t gotten accustomed to this. But there are bad people in the area who want to hurt us, and our citizens.”

“The situation is much better than it was 10 years ago, and today we have [the] Iron Dome [missile defense system] — which is very important to note; some rockets were intercepted last night,” said Barak. “The fact that terrorists succeed in harming us once in a while doesn’t mean we’re not organized.”

He added that Israel killed 15 terror leaders in Gaza over the past week in response to the mounting rocket attacks. He also extended sympathy to IDF officer Ziv Shilon, who was seriously injured Tuesday by a roadside bomb near the Gaza border.

The defense minister also said he does not see the recent escalation in the south as related to the Qatari emir’s visit to Gaza on Tuesday — the first visit to the Strip’s Hamas leadership by a head of state — saying that the rise of Islamic extremism around the Arab world was likely the real culprit.

“I don’t think we can negotiate with Hamas… It needs to take certain steps, and if it had taken them, it would be trying to prevent terror,” Barak explained.

He also noted that fighting terror and maintaining Israel’s military edge are not diametrically opposed to advancing peace. “It’s vitally important to pursue an agreement [with the Palestinian Authority], in order to have a Jewish state, and, next to it, a Palestinian state. Otherwise the degradation will continue, and we will approach a bi-national state — one in which Jews would not be the majority.”

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said that Israel would not long suffer fire on its citizens and anticipated a further escalation of violence unless the Palestinians cease their attacks. He told visiting EU foreign policy chief that the situation was “unacceptable” and that Israel would not maintain its current restraint for many more days.

Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) blamed the government for allowing Hamas to take the initiative in the use of force. The former defense minister said the government’s inconsistent responses to Palestinian attacks had emboldened Hamas.

“Netanyahu’s stammering on security issues comes at a price,” said Mofaz. “Instead of fear-mongering on Iran, we need a decisive defense policy.” He said Israel needs to regain its deterrence by striking a decisive blow.

Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich said she supports the prime minister’s position on Gaza and wouldn’t call on him to escalate the situation further.