Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, insisting that Israel has no wish to rule over the Palestinians, declared yesterday that 2005 would be "the year of a great historic opportunity" in...

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JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, insisting that Israel has no wish to rule over the Palestinians, declared yesterday that 2005 would be “the year of a great historic opportunity” in the Middle East.

“We have to seize the initiative; this is the time, the hour, the national test,” the 76-year-old Israeli leader said, summing up a tumultuous year that saw the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and a series of intense internal Israeli political battles over the prime minister’s plan to uproot the Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip.

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Sharon spoke at the Herzliya Conference, an annual gathering of policymakers, academics, senior military officials and analysts that he has used in recent years as a forum for delivering something akin to a state-of-the-union address.

While the prime minister did not unveil any new initiatives — unlike last year, when he used his speech at the conference to spell out his Gaza withdrawal plan for the first time — his address was notable for the conciliatory tone he struck toward the Palestinians.

Sharon repeated Israeli pledges to do everything possible to ensure a smooth vote on Jan. 9, when the Palestinians will pick a successor to Arafat.

The front-runner is Mahmoud Abbas, a 69-year-old former Palestinian prime minister who this week reiterated his opposition to the use of violence by his people in their quest for statehood.

“We do not want to rule over you, or to run your lives,” Sharon said, addressing the Palestinians directly.

Diplomatic activity, almost dormant before Arafat’s death on Nov. 11, has been renewed in recent weeks. Sharon’s government has hinted that Israel might agree to attend a Mideast conference in London early next year, the details of which could be announced during a visit to the region next week by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Yesterday, the Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militant groups rebuffed Abbas’ call for an end to the armed struggle in favor of talks with Israel.

“Calls by some persons to stop the intifada are categorically rejected,” masked gunmen from the groups said in a video distributed to Western news agencies. “The sacred uprising will continue; no one will be able to stop it.”

In related developments:

Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved into the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza early today and began destroying buildings in response to a Palestinian mortar attack that slightly wounded 11 Israeli soldiers.

Yesterday, an Israeli attack helicopter fired a missile at a carpentry shop in the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border, setting it on fire, witnesses said. No injuries were reported. The military said Hamas made mortars there.

Dozens of gun-toting Palestinian militants yesterday marched into a U.N. ceremony to dedicate new homes for families whose houses were destroyed by the Israeli military — a sign of the authority gunmen still hold in the West Bank town of Jenin.