Gaza welcomes Qatari leader
BY IBRAHIM BARZAK Associated Press
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
10/24/12 at 3:31 AM
The emir of Qatar received a hero's welcome during a landmark visit to Gaza on Tuesday, becoming the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since the Islamist militant Hamas seized control of the coastal strip five years ago.
The visit by Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani handed the ruling Hamas - branded terrorists by the West and isolated by an Israeli blockade - its biggest diplomatic victory since taking power. It was also a strong sign of the rising power of oil-rich Qatar, and the mounting influence of Hamas' parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, since last year's Arab Spring uprisings.
While Gazans celebrated the emir's arrival, the rival Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank was less enthusiastic. Israel condemned the visit as undermining peace.
Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Abbas' Fatah forces in 2007, and West Bank officials fear the emir's visit will give the Iranian-backed Hamas a lift in their feud and make the split between the two territories permanent.
In a speech at Gaza's Islamic University, the emir urged the warring Palestinian factions to reconcile.
While Abbas has welcomed Qatar's plans to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Gaza, he stressed in a phone call with the Qatari leader this week that he is the internationally recognized leader of the Palestinians.
Israel, which brandishes Hamas as terrorist for its suicide bombings and strikes on Israeli civilian targets, denounced the visit.
"It is quite strange that the emir of Qatar should take sides with Hamas, that he will favor Hamas over Fatah, that he would even decide to take sides in the Palestinian internal conflict," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "This is more than strange, especially since Hamas is internationally recognized as a terror group ... by hugging Hamas publicly, the emir of Qatar has thrown peace under the bus."
In Gaza, a song called "Thank you, Qatar" played on the radio and on TV. In the border area, Hamas staged an honor guard ceremony after the emir crossed into the territory from Egypt.
Thousands of cheering Palestinians lined the main road to Gaza City to greet the emir.
The emir was received by Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who said the emir had promised a total of $400 million of aid projects, an increase over earlier plans for $250 million in aid. During his four-hour visit, the emir launched a housing project, hospital and received an honorary degree.
Qatar is making its mark on a region in turmoil. It lent support to opposition and rebel forces as dictators toppled in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt last year. At the same time, it hosts a major U.S. air base and thousands of American troops.
Palestinian children and Hamas supporters wave colored balloons and Qatari flags while waiting for the convoy of Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in Gaza City on Tuesday. The emir of Qatar was the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since the Islamist militant Hamas seized control there in 2007. HATEM MOUSSA/Associated Press
Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani waves to the crowd Tuesday in Gaza City. HATEM MOUSSA/Associated Press