GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The emir of Qatar on Tuesday became the first head of state to visit the Gaza Strip since Hamas militants seized the territory five years ago, showering almost half a billion dollars and unprecedented political recognition on the Islamic militant group.
The landmark visit highlighted the tumultuous changes that have swept the region during the Arab Spring events over the past two years, pushing once-shunned Islamic movements to the forefront of Mideast politics. Qatar, an oil-rich Gulf state, has encouraged these changes by backing efforts for the ouster of secular regimes.
The emir, who has long sought a role in Palestinian politics, appeared to be seizing an opportunity created by Hamas' break in recent months with its ally Syria. In return for Tuesday's stamp of recognition, the emir may use his leverage to lure Hamas hardliners in Gaza away from their longtime patron Iran, the regional rival of Qatar and other Sunni Muslim-led states.
The arrival of Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani gave Hamas its biggest diplomatic victory yet since violently taking control of Gaza in June 2007 from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Repeated attempts to reconcile, including a Qatari-brokered deal early this year, have failed. Abbas now governs in the West Bank.
The emir received a hero's welcome as he crossed through Gaza's southern border with Egypt. An honor guard greeted him, white and maroon Qatari flags flapped in the streets and a song called "Thank you, Qatar" played on the radio and on TV. Thousands of cheering and waving Palestinians lined the main road to Gaza City to greet the emir, who rolled down the window of his armored car to shake hands with dozens of people. Women on balconies threw flowers and rice on his convoy.
In a speech at Gaza's Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold, the emir called on the Palestinians to heal their bitter rift, saying a unified front is the only way to achieve statehood.
"Why are you staying divided? There are no peace negotiations (between Palestinian factions), and there is no clear strategy of resistance and liberation. Why shouldn't brothers sit together and reconcile?" he said.
Despite the conciliatory language, the emir's visit may have the opposite effect. Hamas hardliners in Gaza have resisted reconciliation, in part because they are reluctant to give up the mini-state they have created.
Though it is shunned internationally, Hamas now runs governmental ministries, armed security forces and border crossings. The emir's visit is likely to solidify Hamas' control and boost its confrontational approach toward Israel.
"Gaza is not alone, and Palestine occupies the hearts of Arabs," Hamas' prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, jubilantly declared. "Your visit today officially announces the break of the economic blockade and political blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip by the forces of injustice."
Officials in the West Bank made clear their displeasure with the way the visit was handled. Abbas, who seeks a negotiated peace deal with Israel, has seen his popularity plunge because of a four-year standstill in peace efforts and a financial crisis that has left him unable to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of civil servants.
"If this is a one-time visit, we can tolerate it. But we are concerned that others will come and that will reinforce the split," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, an adviser to Abbas. "No one should deal with Gaza as a separate entity from the Palestinian territories and from the Palestinian Authority."
Israel also denounced the Qatari leader's visit. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor accused the emir of favoring Hamas in the internal Palestinian conflict.
"This is more than strange, especially since Hamas is internationally recognized as a terror group," he said. "By hugging Hamas publicly, the emir of Qatar has thrown peace under the bus."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. hoped "the opportunity was taken to make clear the importance of Palestinians and Israelis talking to each other. And we've been very clear about our concerns about Hamas," she said.
Qatar has long leveraged its energy riches to gain influence in the region. It also has shown tremendous flexibility in its foreign relations, cultivating an image as a bridge builder between religious and secular, and the Arab world and the West.
Qatar was at the forefront of supporting a NATO bombing campaign that helped oust former Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi. It also has helped arm Syrian rebels seeking to overturn President Bashar Assad's regime.
Amid the change, Qatar and other Sunni-led Gulf countries have moved aggressively to undercut the influence of Shiite Muslim-dominated Iran.
For years, Hamas relied heavily on Iran and Syria. The need became even stronger after the militant group seized Gaza in 2007, triggering an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade. Hamas became an international pariah because of its refusal to abandon its militant ideology. Syria hosted the Hamas leadership in exile, while Iran provided cash and weapons to Hamas.
However, the uprising against Assad has made it impossible to maintain that alliance. The revolt was led by fellow Sunnis, some with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, the regional organization that also spawned Hamas. Early this year, Hamas leaders left their Damascus headquarters. The organization's chief in exile, Khaled Mashaal, found a new home in Qatar.
Hamas leaders in Gaza, the group's stronghold, have been reluctant to cut ties with Iran unless a new benefactor steps up. Hamas needs millions of dollars in aid each year to continue running Gaza, an impoverished territory of 1.6 million. The emir's latest gifts may be the push that is needed.
Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas official in Gaza, said Hamas had no plans to cut ties with Iran and that Qatar had not conditioned its aid to that happening.
A Hamas lawmaker involved in the visit said the Qatari leader urged Hamas to reconcile with Abbas' forces and do everything possible to avoid violence with Israel. The lawmaker spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the visit with the media.
Although Hamas has largely refrained from attacking Israel since an Israeli military offensive four years ago, other militant groups remain active in Gaza. Early Tuesday, an Israeli soldier was seriously wounded in an explosion along the border fence with Gaza, and later in the day, militants fired several rockets and shells into Israel. Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from Gaza.
Late Tuesday an Israeli airstrike killed two Hamas men in Gaza, Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra said. The Israeli military said in a statement that the target were men firing rockets. But the two men were wearing the uniforms of Hamas security officials who patrol the Gaza border to prevent rocket fire by other militant groups.
The emir launched a total of $400 million of projects, including plans to build new housing, a hospital and roads. Israel's blockade has prevented construction materials from entering Gaza, fueling a dire shortage of housing and schools. In order to get around the blockade, the materials will be shipped in through Egypt, which is now governed by a new Islamist government.
The emirate has made it clear that the money is not going into Hamas' coffers, but there is no doubt this will help revive flagging popular support for Hamas by generating thousands of jobs in the impoverished territory.
Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, Karin Laub in Beirut, Brian Murphy in Dubai and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.