JERUSALEM (AP) – Even if Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip, it will still be considered the occupying power under international law and as such responsible for the crowded territory, according to an internal Israeli government assessment obtained by The Associated Press.

Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement plan”, Israel is scheduled to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four isolated West Bank Jewish settlements in the summer of 2005.

But because Israel intends to maintain control over the crossings into Gaza, its coastline and airspace, international law will continue to hold the Jewish state responsible for the territory, according to the study by legal experts from the Justice Ministry, Foreign Ministry and the military.

“We must be aware that the disengagement does not necessarily exempt Israel from responsibility in the evacuated territories,” said the 47-page report.

Israel could reduce its responsibility over the territory, where 8,200 Jewish settlers currently live among 1.3 million Palestinians, if someone else were to take control there, the report said.

“The more active control is given to other parties, the more difficult it will be to claim Israel is still responsible,” the study said.

The study, which has been submitted to the National Security Council, responsible for implementing the withdrawal, said that both the involvement of an international force in Gaza or the establishment of a Palestinian state would reduce the burden on Israel.

However, Cabinet Minister Tzipi Livni said Sunday that Israel was unlikely to endorse either option due to its reluctance to let another party handle security.

Despite the legal complications, Israel hopes the international community will recognize the withdrawal as the end of its occupation of Gaza, said Livni, a lawyer by profession.

“I really would like to have the technical, legal, international declaration that Israel is no longer responsible there,” Livni told Army Radio. “There is a tremendous difference between if Israel stays there … and a situation in which Israel does everything to get out of there.”

Sharon has said that he does not intend to consult with the Palestinians ahead of the pullout, but Israel is holding talks with international organizations in an effort to ensure a smooth transfer.

The report also examined the possible drawbacks for Israel if the Palestinians were to declare a state or an international force was brought into Gaza.

“A Palestinian state would be free to conduct its foreign relations and we can expect a flood of agreements with Arab nations and Muslim organizations,” the report said, warning of Palestinian military pacts with Israel’s enemies.

The report also warned that international involvement in Gaza could set a precedent for the West Bank where Sharon hopes to retain large swaths in any future peace deal.

Israel fears placing security control in the hands of international forces or the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza would severely limit its ability to defend itself from attacks from the area.

Four Israelis have been killed in recent months from Palestinian rocket attacks on the southern Israeli town of Sderot.


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