Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, arrived in Gaza today, in the first visit by a foreign head of state since Hamas seized power five years ago.
The emir arrived from Egypt via the Rafah border crossing to be greeted by cheering crowds of Palestinians and a warm welcome from Hamas officials.
The emir’s visit lends critical legitimacy to the rule of Hamas, which won democratic elections six years ago, but is regarded as a terror group by Israel, the US and the EU. Hamas has been largely spurned by international politicians since wresting power in 2007 from rival faction Fatah following a bloody struggle.
Sheikh Hamad was in Gaza to inaugurate $400m in reconstruction aid to build roads and a new housing development in the shattered strip devastated by Israel’s military offensive in the winter of 2008-2009. An Israel-led blockade has prevented significant amounts of building materials from reaching the besieged enclave, and reports suggested the Qatari-funded materials would come via Egypt.
Hamas hailed the visit as the beginning of the end of the siege. “It is the first visit by an Arab leader at this level to Gaza,” it said in a statement. “This breaks the political isolation of the government and opens the door to break the siege.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who governs the West Bank, expressed irritation at the visit in a phone call to the emir earlier this week, reminding him that he remains the internationally-recognised leader of the Palestinians.
The Gaza-based Hamas government has seen its legitimacy gain in recent months thanks in part to the rise of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, in which Hamas has its origins. Hamas has also benefited by distancing itself from Iran, its long-time backer, and the Assad regime in Syria. In February, it said that it was moving its long-time headquarters-in-exile from Damascus to Qatar and Egypt.
Oil-rich Qatar, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the most vocal supporters of the Arab Spring movements seeking to topple dictatorships in Libya, Egypt and Syria, and has positioned itself as a regional mediator in Mideast conflicts.
The visit comes amid tit-for-tat attacks by Israel and Gaza-based militants in recent days. An Israeli soldier was said to be critically injured in an explosion today along the border fence between Gaza and Israel.
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