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Sharon Optimistic About Peace Prospects While Violence Continues in Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has sounded a note of optimism about peace prospects in the coming year provided Palestinians stop violence against Israel.

Speaking at an academic conference Thursday night in the Israeli coastal city of Herzliya Mr. Sharon sounded a note of optimism about what the future holds for Israelis and Palestinians. And, for the first time said that he wants to coordinate his disengagement plan with the Palestinians.

Previously the prime minister had proposed a unilateral pullout of all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank.

He told the gathering "in light of the new opportunities and potential of a new Palestinian leadership, Israel will be prepared to coordinate various elements relating to our disengagement plan with the future Palestinian government, a government which is ready and able to take responsibility for the areas which we leave."

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, who is in charge of negotiations with Israel, said the speech contained nothing new. A spokesman for the Palestinian militant group Hamas called it "a declaration of war against the Palestinian people."

Meanwhile, Israeli troops raided the southern Gaza Strip on Friday killing two Palestinians, wounding seven and making others homeless through the demolition of their houses.

The raid came several hours after an Israel Air Force helicopter gunship fired a missile at a Gaza Strip workshop which the army said was used by Palestinian militants to store munitions, destroying it but causing no casualties.

Palestinian witnesses said the target was a carpentry shop in the Rafah refugee camp on Gaza's border with Egypt.