Israeli soldier injured in Gaza explosion ahead of visit by the ruler of Qatar


An Israeli soldier has been injured in an explosion along the Gaza security fence, ahead of a scheduled visit by the ruler of Qatar to the Palestinian territory, Israel's military said today.

The soldier was moderately hurt. The military had no further details about the blast.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani's visit today will be the first by a head of state to Gaza since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power there five years ago.

The emir is to deliver more than 250 million US dollars (£156 million) in aid.

The visit is seen in Israel to reflect the rising influence of Hamas's parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, since last year's popular uprisings.

Islamist groups have made gains throughout in the region. Qatar has been a key ally of rebel and opposition movements.

Sheikh Hamad's visit to Gaza comes amid the deep reservations of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas ousted Mr Abbas's forces in Gaza during its June 2007 takeover of the territory, leaving the president in control only of the West Bank.

In a phone conversation on the eve of the visit, Mr Abbas welcomed the emir's intentions to help the people of Gaza - under an Israeli-led blockade since the Hamas takeover - but reminded the Qatari leader that he remained the internationally-recognised leader of the Palestinians.

"He stressed the necessity to preserve the legitimate representation of the Palestinian people... and he asked him to urge Hamas in Gaza to go for reconciliation and to end this split," said Mr Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh.

Another Abbas aide, Nimr Hamad, used even stronger language.

"Such visits give Hamas the impression that the visitors recognise their rule and that would reinforce the split and not help the reconciliation," he said.

Yesterday, however, it was clear that the trip would go ahead.

A late-night statement from the office of Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi said his country welcomed the emir's visit to Gaza, which it said was part of Egypt's effort "to break the siege on the people" of the territory.

A convoy of some 30 brand new SUVs and mini-vans, along with several dozen Qatari security men, crossed through the Egyptian border in preparation for the visit.

Streets were decorated with white and maroon Qatari flags and signs thanking the Gulf nation for its support.

Hamas's Interior Ministry, which oversees security, said it had a "well-prepared plan" to protect the emir, deploying thousands of security men and blocking roads to Gaza City's main football stadium, where the Qatari leader was expected to address a packed audience.

Qatar has played a key role in the reconciliation process. Earlier this year, the emir brought together Mr Abbas and Hamas's supreme leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, to make a deal. Under the arrangement Mr Abbas was to lead an interim unity government to pave the way for new elections in the Palestinian territories.

That deal, like previous reconciliation attempts, quickly foundered, in large part because of opposition by Gaza's Hamas leaders.

In a statement, Hamas said the emir's arrival had deep significance. "It is the first visit by an Arab leader at this level to Gaza," it said. "This breaks the political isolation of the government and opens the door to break the siege."

When he comes through the Rafah crossing along Gaza's southern border with Egypt, Sheikh Hamad will discover a territory hit hard by war and international isolation. Hamas, whose violent ideology calls for the destruction of Israel, is considered a terrorist group by Israel and the West.

The Qataris have said the visit is purely humanitarian. The emir is expected to launch £159 million of building projects, including three roads, a hospital and a new town that will bring thousands of jobs to the impoverished territory.

The economic boost is sure to help Hamas's standing, especially at a time when the rival government in the West Bank struggles to stay afloat because of international donors' failure to deliver promised funding.

The visit reflects the flexible foreign policy that Qatar has taken in recent years.

The oil-rich Gulf state expanded its regional influence during the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled dictators in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt last year, lending support to protesters linked to the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood.

Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, but has adopted a more militant ideology as part of its conflict with Israel.


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