Foreign minister Nasser al-Qidwa said Israel's continued control of Gaza's air space and territorial waters meant any such move could be premature and should await a comprehensive peace agreement.

"The international community must maintain the Palestinian territories' current legal status after the unilateral Israeli withdrawal," said Qidwa, who travelled to Moscow this week to put his case to one of the five permanent members with veto powers on the Security Council.

The minister charged with liaison with Israel over the pullout, Mohammed Dahlan, echoed Qidwa's comments.

"Gaza will remain under the control of the occupier, who will continue to weigh heavily on our lives through control of border crossings, air space and territorial waters," he said.

Shalom says he wants the UN to
declare an end to occupation

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told a Kuwaiti daily last week that he planned to ask the Security Council to declare the occupation of Gaza over and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is to address the UN General Assembly next month as part of Israeli efforts to improve its standing with the world body.

Any move to change Gaza's status would be a sharp shift away from the provisions of the 1993 Oslo accords which foresaw the Palestinian territories' occupied status being maintained right up to a full peace treaty.

Israel in control

Both international and Israeli courts have accepted the occupied status of the Palestinian territories in a series of decisions, most recently on Israel's West Bank separation barrier, which in places juts far into the territory.

Palestinian human rights activists also argued that Israel's evacuation of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip fell far short of an end to occupation.

"The Israeli withdrawal ought to have marked the end of military occupation and the lifting of the grip on land and people but this isn't the case," said the head of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Raji al-Surani.

"Israel is going to preserve its powers to intervene in Gaza and its control of land, sea and air borders," Surani told AFP.

No responsibility

Palestinians fear that Israel will
continue to intervene in the strip

Palestinian rights lawyer Yunis al-Jaru went further, warning that any change in Gaza's status would absolve Israel of its legal responsibilities for the welfare of the territory's population.

"Proclaiming the end of the Israeli occupation of Gaza would enable Israel to shake off its responsibilities, which require it to protect people under occupation and cater for their basic needs in health, education and food," said Jaru who heads the organization Conscience.

"In the current circumstances, this would create a serious precedent both for the Palestinian question and international law.

"Gaza will be totally cut off from Israel - and we won't shed many tears over that - but it will also be cut off from the West Bank including east Jerusalem politically, socially and economically, and there lies the nub of the problem."

Stranglehold

Jaru predicted that Israel would continue to use the threat of its military might to prevent the Palestinians developing normal communications links for the territory, such as a fully functioning port and airport.

"To say that Gaza was free would be a mystification without precedent in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict"

Yunis al-Jaru,
Human rights lawyer

"The Palestinians of Gaza will only be able to take the plane to Cairo more than 450 kilometres away and will only be able to import or export foods through the Egyptian ports of Damietta and Port Said, more than 300km away.

"To say that Gaza was free would be a mystification without precedent in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would allow Ariel Sharon... to transform a military disengagement into an end to occupied status.

"Israeli disengagement is going to strangle Gaza. Residents will no longer be able to use Ashdod port or Tel Aviv airport and will no longer be allowed to enter Israel to work," Jaru said.

"Gaza is going to be one big prison with 66% of its working age population unemployed and 81% living below the poverty line."