JERUSALEM — Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Monday criticized Israel's policy of establishing Jewish settlements in the occupied Gaza Strip and proposed that settlements there be dismantled in return for some arrangement to "demilitarize" the area.
Peres spoke out before the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset (Parliament) after two killings in the last four weeks linked to Arab-Israeli tension in the Gaza Strip.
On Nov. 10, a 17-year-old Palestinian schoolgirl was shot to death in the Deir al Balah refugee camp, about 10 miles south of Gaza City, in a stone-throwing political demonstration. On Sunday, the Israeli press reported that Shimon Yifrah, 30, a Gaza Strip settler, admitted firing the fatal shot after he was confronted with results of a ballistics test.
Also on Sunday, an unknown assailant, presumed to have been a Palestinian, killed Shlomo Takal, 45, an Israeli plastics merchant, in the center of Gaza City. The police were still searching for the killer late Monday.
Peres appeared at a closed meeting of the Knesset committee, but what he said was made public by usually reliable sources. His remarks appeared to be in keeping with his Labor party's support for territorial compromise in return for peace with the Arabs. But coming as they did in the emotional aftermath of Sunday's killing, they were considered likely to create a political stir.
Israeli television quoted Reuven Rosenblatt, chairman of the Gaza Settlement Council, as calling on Peres to retract his remarks.
"Settlements are not something that one Jewish government can build and then another decide to destroy . . . ," Rosenblatt said later by telephone. "We are living here, and we are staying here."
Rosenblatt was quoted on the television broadcast as saying that Peres' remarks can only invite more attacks on Jews in Gaza. About 2,200 Israelis live in three Jewish settlement zones, taking up about 40% of the available land in the Gaza Strip, which is also home to 650,000 Palestinian Arabs.
The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas on earth and is traditionally a hotbed of anti-Israeli resistance. However, there are more Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River, which, as the heart of the Biblical Israel, is much more sensitive politically than Gaza.
There have been hints that Israel might withdraw from Gaza, where the high birthrate among Palestinians could produce a hostile population of about 1 million Arabs in the next 20 years.
Aides to Peres said his suggestion of a formula for dismantling Gaza settlements was intended to be presented only as part of eventual peace negotiations. They did not say whom Peres sees as taking part in such negotiations.
Former Gaza Mayor Rashad Shawa said in a telephone interview that if Peres was addressing his offer to the Palestinians, it "won't change very much of what is happening right now." He said that Gazans want a complete Israeli withdrawal from the area.
Peres was quoted as telling the Knesset committee that any demilitarization would be under Israeli supervision. No additional details of his proposal were available, but Shawa said he interpreted the comments as meaning that Gaza Palestinians "won't be allowed to have any sort of regular army or even effective police."
Regarding the settlements, Peres reportedly asked committee members rhetorically: "What do a few settlements in the strip give us? What logic, ethics or historic wisdom are reflected in the shooting of a schoolgirl? Are another (100 square miles) better for Israel's security balance than another 600,000 Arabs?"
Turning to one right-wing critic, Peres reportedly said: "Very soon there will be 1 million Arabs in the strip. Where will you settle them? In the Negev (Israel's southern desert)?" Some Israeli analysts saw Peres' remarks as more of a warmup for next year's scheduled national elections than as a serious peace offer. Peres' aides say he intends to emphasize the need for peace talks with the Arabs as the central element in his campaign against Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's rightist Likud Bloc.