JERUSALEM: The Amir of Qatar has become the first head of state to visit Gaza since the Islamist movement Hamas took control of the tiny enclave more than five years ago.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani entered the Gaza Strip from Egypt at the border crossing of Rafah, which is also the headquarters of illegal trading through a vast network of tunnels which flourished after Israel tightened its blockade on Gaza in 2007. He was given a red-carpet welcome by Hamas officials.
The amir was due to inaugurate a $254m investment programme in Gaza by the Gulf state.
Among the projects funded by the Qataris is a new housing development on the site of a former Israeli settlement, evacuated in 2005, and several new roads through the territory.
Qatari flags and posters expressing thanks were strung along streets as a 30-vehicle convoy, filled with Qatari security forces, made advance preparations for the visit.
Sheikh Hamad was expected to address a rally at a stadium in Gaza City later on Tuesday.
Hamas welcomed the amir’s visit. “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.”
Despite winning democratic elections in 2006, Hamas has been largely isolated by the international community since it took control of Gaza in a bloody battle with its rival faction, Fatah.
However, some European governments are believed to maintain back-channel contacts with the Islamist party.
Iran, which had been a key patron of Hamas, has withheld funding for the faction since its refusal to back the Syrian regime in its civil war.
Qatar has called for military intervention in Syria to topple the government.
In the wake of the breach with Tehran and the rise of Islamist parties in the Arab spring, Hamas has built up relations elsewhere in the region, most notably its parent organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian president, welcomed the amir’s visit, saying it was part of his country’s efforts to “break the siege on the people” of Gaza.
A spokesperson for the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said that while Qatari help for the people of Gaza was welcome, the “legitimate representation of the Palestinian people” must be preserved.
Hamas promised tight security for Sheikh Hamad’s visit. The visit comes amid an ongoing cycle of Israeli air strikes and militant rocket fire from Gaza.
Early on Tuesday, an Israeli soldier was critically injured in an explosion close to the border fence between Gaza and Israel.
The amir was expected to return to Egypt later on Tuesday.
By arrangement with the Guardian