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Sharon Heads to UN, Hopes to Reap Diplomatic Benefits of Gaza Pullout

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon heads to New York Tuesday to attend this week's U.N. General Assembly. The Israeli leader is hoping to reap diplomatic benefits from the just completed withdrawal from Gaza, but Palestinians say Israel's occupation of the coastal strip is not yet over.

When Prime Minister Sharon addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday, he will do so just days after Israel pulled its last soldier out of the Gaza Strip.

It was Brigadier General Avi Kochavi - the last Israeli soldier to leave Gaza - who announced the completion of the withdrawal.

"The mission is completed," he said. "An era has ended. From this moment on, the responsibility for all that takes place in the Gaza Strip lays on the Palestinians."

That is very much what Mr. Sharon is expected to tell world leaders at the U.N. this week.

By dismantling its settlements and pulling out its troops, Israel has ended a 38-year presence in Gaza. But, Diana Buttu, legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority, tells VOA this does not mean an end to Israeli occupation.

"On the ground Israel still is controlling the air space, it controls the territorial waters, and, most importantly it's controlling the borders, which means that it's controlling entry in and exit out of the Gaza Strip," she said. "So, although the forces are no longer in the actual cities in the Gaza Strip, they're still situated along the perimeter of the Gaza Strip and they're still controlling the lives of Palestinians, so the occupation is not at all over."

Ms. Buttu says talks are continuing about these issues. Palestinians say that without freedom of movement and the ability to conduct commerce, Gaza will become one giant prison with no options to rebuild lives or a shattered economy.

Even with many issues still to be resolved, Israel's withdrawal did bring some immediate benefits. Palestinians throughout Gaza spent Monday celebrating a newfound freedom. And, as Mr. Sharon goes to the U.N., he is expecting to enhance his country's standing in the international community and hoping for contacts with some nations who have until now shunned any open dealings with Israel. A meeting with the emir of Qatar and a possible conversation with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf are being mentioned.