Qatar ruler begins landmark visit to Gaza

The emir of Qatar has become the first head of state to visit the Gaza Strip since the Islamist group Hamas came to power there in 2007.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani crossed into Gaza by car from Egypt amid tight security, and was greeted by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya.

He is set to launch a $254m (£158m) construction project for the territory.

Qatar has become one of Hamas’s main benefactors since it fell out with Syria and had a rift with Iran.

The Palestinian Authority expressed reservations about the emir’s visit.

A carpeted tent adorned with Qatari and Palestinian flags and pictures of the emir and Mr Haniyeh had been set up inside the Rafah border crossing for a ceremonial greeting. It was preceded by an honour guard ceremony at which the Qatari and Palestinian national anthems were played.

The Hamas interior ministry said it had a “well-prepared plan” to protect the emir, deploying thousands of security personnel and blocking roads to Gaza City’s stadium, where he was expected to address a crowd.

Earlier, the Israeli military said a soldier had been wounded by a bomb explosion along Israel’s border fence with Gaza, near Kissufim.

Syria fall-out
The visit is a sign of the increasing ties between the Gulf state and Hamas, reports the BBC’s Jon Donnison from Gaza.

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Jon Donnison
BBC News, Gaza City
Across Gaza, Hamas has put up the bunting for the emir’s visit.

Maroon and white Qatari flags decorate lampposts and there are huge billboards bearing his face.

At Gaza’s Rafah crossing after arriving from Egypt in a vast motorcade, the emir was met by the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and given a red carpet reception. No head of state has made such a journey since Hamas came to power – and the Islamist movement wants to make political capital.

Qatar recently announced construction projects worth a quarter of a billion dollars here. Hamas says for the first time Egypt will allow the building materials for the developments to be brought in overland, bypassing the Strip’s smuggling tunnels which have flourished under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade.

Since Hamas’s fallout with the Syrian leadership, Qatar has become one of the movement’s main benefactors. But Qatar is also one of America’s key Arab allies. That has led some in Gaza to accuse the Gulf State of meddling in Palestinian politics.

Qatar, one of the richest countries in the Arab world, has become an important source of revenue for Hamas in the aftermath of its fallout with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In February, Hamas announced that its political leadership had been moved from Syria to Egypt and Qatar, because it could no longer effectively operate amid the unrest in Syria.

The political bureau of Hamas had been based in Damascus since 1999, and relations appeared to be good until anti-government protests erupted throughout Syria in March 2011.

Hamas initially neither publicly endorsed the Syrian government’s handling of the uprising nor repudiated it.

Analysts said the Sunni Islamist movement was torn between risking the financial backing of Syria and its ally, Iran, and supporting Syria’s majority Sunni community, which has borne the brunt of the crackdown by the Alawite-dominated security forces.

But in February, Mr Haniya declared his support for “the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform”.

Qatar, meanwhile, was the first Arab nation to call publicly for military intervention in Syria to topple the government.

It was the main Arab player in the Nato-led coalition in Libya and has played a major part in trying to resolve regional conflicts.

The country maintains cordial relations with both the US and Iran, and – even more unusually for an Arab state – with both Hamas and Israel.

Most recently, Qatar has been involved in the reconciliation process between Hamas and its long-time rival faction, Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority and is in power in the West Bank.

Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2006, ousted forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza during clashes in 2007 and set up a rival government.

In response, Israel tightened its blockade on the coastal territory, which has had a crippling effect on Gaza’s economy.

A spokesperson for Mr Abbas said the Palestinian Authority welcomed Qatar’s efforts to help the people in Gaza but also stressed “the necessity to preserve the legitimate representation of the Palestinian people”.

Mr Abbas called on Sheikh Hamad to “urge Hamas in Gaza to go for reconciliation and to end this split”.

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