Qatari Emir Visits Gaza in Diplomatic Victory for Hamas

Posted October 23rd, 2012 at 12:55 pm (UTC-5)
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Qatar's emir has received a hero's welcome in the Gaza Strip as he became the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since Islamist Hamas militants took control in 2007.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh greeted Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani on a red carpet after the Qatari leader crossed into Gaza from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on Tuesday.

In a visit lasting several hours, Sheikh Hamad inaugurated a Qatari aid program to help Gaza rebuild from the damage caused by an Israeli offensive against Hamas in December 2008 to January 2009. The program includes a new housing development that will be named in his honor in the southern city of Khan Younis.

Haniyeh said Sheikh Hamad agreed to increase Qatar's investment in the program from $250 million to $400 million. The Hamas leader also praised the Qatari emir for breaking what he called the “political and economic blockade imposed on Gaza by the forces of injustice.”

Sheikh Hamad's visit marks a diplomatic boost for Hamas, which is shunned by Western powers who see the rival West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians. Sheikh Hamad had no plans to travel to the West Bank after Gaza.

Hamas also has faced a naval blockade by Israel and tight Israeli restrictions on the movement of people and goods across the Gaza-Israel border. Israel says the measures are needed to prevent the arming of Gaza militants opposed to its existence.

In a change of plan, Hamas authorities canceled a speech by Sheikh Hamad at a Gaza soccer stadium after few spectators turned up. The stadium address had been the centerpiece of the Qatari emir's brief stay. Hamas officials blamed their visitor's tight schedule.

Palestinian President Abbas welcomed the Qatari leader's pledge of aid for Gaza. But, the Palestine Liberation Organization that he chairs issued a statement saying Arab leaders should encourage Hamas to seek unity, and not increase the division that began in 2007 when Hamas ousted Abbas loyalists from Gaza.

Israel's foreign ministry described Sheikh Hamad's decision to travel to Gaza as strange and accused him of taking sides with Hamas.

Qatar's emir has been trying to boost the small Gulf state's diplomatic clout by supporting Islamist movements across the region, including in Arab nations that ousted long-time dictators last year. Sheikh Hamad also hosted reconciliation talks between Mr. Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal earlier this year, but those efforts failed to produce a lasting agreement.

In another development Tuesday, an apparent explosion wounded an Israeli soldier patrolling Israel's border fence with Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed a strong response to the attack. The region has seen occasional outbreaks of fighting between Gaza militants and Israeli forces since the end of the 2008-2009 conflict.