- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 13, 2005

TEL AVIV — With the final Israeli soldiers gone from the sands of Gaza, a debate over the coastal strip’s new legal standing is taking a shape that is likely to have political ramifications for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Although Gazans are celebrating a liberation of sorts, the territory isn’t a sovereign state, and many Palestinians don’t consider Israel’s occupation over. Israel, for its part, wants international recognition of the end of its military rule and the beginning of full Palestinian “jurisdiction” over the Gaza Strip.

At stake is whether Israel will be able to fully absolve itself of responsibility for Gaza’s anarchy and economic blight, as well as the degree of force that the Jewish state would be able to use in retaliation for cross-border attacks.

The argument over the Gaza pullout will come to the fore this coming week, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attend the United Nations General Assembly’s 60th anniversary in New York.

In a speech scheduled for tomorrow, Mr. Sharon is expected to announce that the termination of Israel’s military rule in Gaza marks the transfer of responsibility to the Palestinians, Ha’aretz newspaper reported.

“From our point of view, with our pullout from Gaza, Gaza becomes Palestinian jurisdiction,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ron Prosor. “We urge the Palestinian people to step up to the plate and start an urgent and vital process of nation building. It’s all-important that we all see the development of good government.”

Israel’s government refused to describe the territories conquered in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict as occupied, saying there was never an internationally recognized sovereign power there. And Mr. Sharon wants to free Israel from its obligations in Gaza as an occupying power, analysts said.

But Israel will retain control of Gaza’s airspace, its territorial waters and, for the near future, the border crossing to Egypt. Palestinians argue that those trappings of military occupation still qualify Israel as responsible for the situation inside Gaza.

“It’s still occupied. You don’t need to have settlements or troops for [Gaza] to be occupied,” said Diana Bhuttu, an aide to Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Mohammad Dahlan. “The legal test is whether you can still maintain control over the area.”

The Palestinians also say Gaza’s economic, cultural and political links to occupied West Bank mean that the strip remains dominated by Israel. Indeed, under the 1993 Oslo peace accords, the two territories are considered one political unit.

Israel’s unilateral withdrawal gives Gazans the greatest degree of self-determination yet, but it is not clear whether the international community will recognize the occupation as over.

“This is a big question which should fall in the hands of international lawyers,” said Ron Pundak, a director of the Peres Center for Peace who helped start negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in the early 1990s. “Can one declare an end to occupation when you are controlling the contours?”

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