Palestinians Fire Rockets at Israeli Town

Palestinians fired six crude rockets from the Gaza Strip (search) into Israel on Friday, lightly injuring a 10-year-old girl, while Israeli troops demolished eight Palestinian homes near an area where a car bomb exploded earlier.

The violence came a day before the arrival of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is trying to kick off the "road map" peace plan to end 31 months of fighting and create a Palestinian state (search).

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), meanwhile, praised his new Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, as a "partner" for peace and said he is ready to renew peace talks with Syria without conditions.

One of the homemade Qassam rockets fired from Gaza struck a street in the Negev Desert town of Sderot, spraying debris that lightly injured a girl, who was taken to a hospital, police said. Three other people were treated for shock.

The rockets struck just a few miles from Sharon's sheep ranch. Militants have fired dozens of the rockets into Israel in recent months. The attacks have caused little damage and few injuries, but Israel considers them a provocation.

In the Gaza Strip town of Deir el-Balah, Israeli army bulldozers demolished eight homes and damaged another two, making 45 people homeless, the mayor said. The homes are close to the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom, where a Palestinian blew himself up in a car late Thursday as he rammed into a tank.

The attacker was killed, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to Yasser Arafat's ruling Fatah movement, claimed responsibility. Abbas, who is a senior Fatah leader, has denounced such violence.

The U.S.-backed road map urges Palestinians to stop bombings and shootings, while Israel is expected to withdraw troops from Palestinian towns and cities and freeze construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The plan envisions a final peace agreement, including the creation of a Palestinian state, by 2005. It is to be launched with statements by both Israel and the Palestinians, with each saying it recognizes the other's right to exist in peace and security.

The Palestinians have accepted the road map, while Israel has expressed major reservations.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said Friday he hopes the declarations can be made during Powell's two-day visit, which begins Saturday. "The Americans can help both sides to produce the statements required to kick off the process," Erekat said.

The Palestinians have accused Sharon of delaying implementation by posing new conditions. A key dispute is over whether the Palestinians must crack down on militants ahead of an Israeli troop pullback, or whether steps must be taken simultaneously.

In an interview Thursday night, Sharon called Abbas a "partner" for peace. Speaking from his Negev ranch, Sharon told Israel TV that he's met Abbas "many times, including in this house."

He said Abbas was a Palestinian leader who had concluded that violence against Israel was fruitless and said he could be "a partner" for peace talks.

However, in an interview Tuesday, Sharon set a new condition for progress on peace talks, saying the Palestinians must first renounce their demand that refugees from the 1948 war be able to return to their original homes along with their descendants - about 4 million people.

Abbas turned down the condition, saying the issue must be negotiated. The road map says the right-of-return issue is to be taken up in the last stage of the plan.

Sharon also said he is open to resuming peace talks with Syria. Sharon said he had turned down recent overtures from Syrian President Bashar Assad to resume peace talks because he had felt the offer was a Syrian ploy to ease U.S. pressure on Damascus.

He added, however, that he now would be prepared to resume peace negotiations, as long as Syria did not set conditions. Syria has said it would only resume talks at the point where they last broke off three years ago. At that time, Israeli had proposed concessions on the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in the 1967 War.

Israeli-Syrian talks broke down with the two sides relatively close to agreement over Israel's return of the Golan Heights. Syria insisted on a foothold on the Sea of Galilee, and the issue could not be resolved.