Qatari Emir Visits Gaza in Diplomatic Victory for Hamas

Posted October 23rd, 2012 at 9:45 am (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 brief visit lasting several hours, Sheikh Hamad was inaugurating a $250 million Qatari investment project to help Gaza rebuild from the damage caused by an Israeli offensive against Hamas in December 2008 to January 2009. The project includes a new housing development that will be named in his honor in the southern city of Khan Younis.

The Qatari emir's visit marks a diplomatic victory 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.

Members of Mr. Abbas' Fatah party have expressed concern that the Qatari leader's Gaza visit will deepen the split that emerged between the two Palestinian territories since Hamas' 2007 ouster of Fatah forces 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.