Qatar emir to be first head of state to visit Gaza

GAZA ­— The emir of pro-Western Qatar will become the first head of state to enter the blockaded Gaza Strip Tuesday, in a high-profile visit breaking the isolation of the Iranian-backed Islamist movement Hamas that seized power in 2007.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is officially visiting the Palestinian enclave to inaugurate reconstruction projects worth more than US$250 million, which an envoy of his oil-rich, conservative Arab emirate unveiled in Gaza last week.

But his trip will be loaded with political symbolism. The emir will be the first foreign leader to go to Gaza under the rule of Hamas, a militant movement that is outlawed by Israel and the West as a terrorist organization, but whose influence and aspirations in the Middle East conflict may be hard to ignore.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh issued a statement confirming the visit and urging "our people to express their good hospitality in welcoming the great visitor of Gaza."

Security was already being reinforced in places where the emir is expected to make a stop on the way from the Egyptian land border crossing at Rafah. Gaza, under partial blockade by Israel and Egypt, has no airport or seaport.

Low-level war zone

Some Palestinians put up Qatari flags in the streets of Gaza city. Others attacked the visit on social networks, questioning Qatar's intentions. Some posted pictures on their Facebook pages of the emir side-by-side with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Israel and Gaza are in a state of perpetual low-level conflict, marked by sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza by Islamic militant groups and air strikes by the Israeli forces. Hamas refuses to accept the existence of the Jewish state.

Israel admits tons of food aid, consumer goods and fuel into Gaza, but tightly restricts movements of people and anything that might be used for military purposes. However, Qatar's envoy last week indicated that Israel had agreed to permit the import of huge quantities of cement, steel and building machinery that will be need to build new roads and housing.

Gaza was badly damaged in a three-week onslaught by Israel in 2008–2009 to stop rockets being fired at southern Israeli communities. More than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the brief conflict.

The Palestinian Wafa news agency said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose pro-Western Fatah movement was forcibly ejected from Gaza by Hamas in 2007, was told of the Qatari visit in a phone call from the emir in Doha.

Sheik al-Thani "told him of his desire to visit Gaza Strip to inaugurate some projects to reconstruct the strip," Wafa said in a report from the West Bank, where Abbas holds limited power, under Israeli occupation.

"The president welcomed the effort by Qatar to support Gaza Strip, stressing on the unity of Palestinian land and ending division," the agency added. It said Abbas urged Hamas to implement signed agreements for the reconciliation of the two rival movements.

But Gaza and West Bank analysts say reconciliation is not on the cards. Hamas is shifting its ties away from Shia Muslim Iran and wooing Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, its true spiritual mentor, which now runs the country.

The Palestinian Islamist movement feels the wind in its sails and will use this major injection of Qatari aid and the visit of the emir to demonstrate that it has powerful friends, despite its isolation by the West, say analysts.

Abbas and Fatah, by contrast, have reached a dead end in efforts to revive peace talks with Israel that were suspended two years ago, and have been weakened politically.

The emir is due to fly to Egypt's eastern Arish airport and drive into Gaza. Details of his schedule and itinerary were not released.

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