GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The ruler of Qatar is expected in the Gaza Strip this week, in what would be a major stamp of legitimacy for the territory's Islamic militant Hamas rulers.
Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani would be the first head of state to arrive here since Hamas seized Gaza five years ago, setting a strong signal that the Islamic militants are emerging from international isolation.
The leader of the Gulf emirate is also set to launch $254 million worth of construction projects, including three roads, a hospital and a new town that will bring thousands of jobs to the impoverished territory.
Hamas' Palestinian opponents in the West Bank were watching the emir's plans with some concern. They fear that any gestures that strengthen Hamas' hold on Gaza will make the Islamists less inclined to end the Palestinian political rift.
The emir called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas late Sunday and informed him of his plans to visit Gaza and inaugurate construction projects there, said Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh. Abbas welcomed Qatar's aid to Gaza, but also called for pressure on Hamas to end the Palestinian political split, the spokesman said.
That rift broke open in 2007, after Hamas seized Gaza from the internationally backed Abbas. Since then, the two camps have run rival governments, Hamas in Gaza and Abbas in parts of the Israeli-controlled West Bank. Abbas hopes to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem with Israel, while Hamas believes such efforts are a waste of time and instead is tightening its hold on Gaza.
Repeated reconciliation attempts between Abbas and Hamas have failed, with neither side willing to give up power in their respective territories. Earlier this year, the emir of Qatar brought together Abbas and Hamas' supreme leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, for yet another deal. Under the arrangement signed in Doha, Abbas was to lead an interim unity government to pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories.
However, senior Hamas officials in Gaza accused Mashaal at the time of not consulting with them first and torpedoed the deal, unwilling to give Abbas a renewed foothold in Gaza. Hamas has been holding secret leadership elections since then, and Mashaal announced last month he is no longer seeking another term in the top spot.
The upcoming visit by the Qatari ruler — a boon to Hamas — has been shrouded in secrecy. By late Sunday, Qatar had not made a formal announcement, leaving open the possibility that it could be called off at the last minute because of concerns over security or the political ramifications.
However, an Egyptian security official and officials in Gaza involved in arranging the trip said the emir is expected for a four-hour visit Tuesday. He is to be accompanied by some 50 people, including his wife, his prime minister, business leaders, intellectuals and security officials, they said on condition of anonymity because no formal date has been announced.
Qatar expanded its regional influence during the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled dictators in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt last year, lending support to protesters linked to the region wide Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, but has adopted a more militant ideology as part of its conflict with Israel.
In anticipation of the emir's visit, Gaza's streets have been decorated with billboards in Arabic and English reading, "Thanks, Qatar, you fulfilled the promise."
Palestinian officials said the emir and his entourage will be met by an honor guard as they cross from Egypt into Gaza through the Rafah passenger terminal there. Gaza's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, is to greet the emir at Rafah and also host him at his office in Gaza City, the officials said.
The Qatari ruler is also expected to tour the sites of the projects funded by Qatar, including a hospital for the handicapped, a new town and the overhaul of three main roads.
Despite the plans for a high-profile visit, Qatar has tried to temper its growing role in Gaza. Last week, Qatar's ambassador to Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, emphasized that the massive investments "are for the people of Gaza, not Hamas." He said Qatar would be involved in the projects until completion and only then hand them to the Gaza government.
Still, the projects could produce another potential benefit by helping Hamas establish a trade route with Egypt.
After the Hamas takeover, Israel and Egypt's former ruler, Hosni Mubarak, enforced a border blockade of Gaza. Israel has since eased some restrictions, but still bars virtually all exports and restricts the imports of key raw materials.
Mubarak's successor, Mohammed Morsi — who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood — has been reluctant to open the Gaza-Egypt border to trade, in part because this could inadvertently foster the separation between the West Bank and Gaza, which lie on opposite sides of Israel. Such a move could also further weaken Abbas politically.
Qatari diplomats have asked Egypt to allow raw materials for Qatar's Gaza projects to be sent through the Rafah crossing, Gaza officials said. Haniyeh's office said the Egyptian president approved the arrangement, which could set a precedent for future trade.
Egyptian officials were not immediately available for comment Sunday. However, Morsi has tried to avoid alienating Abbas, who would presumably oppose the idea of a Gaza-Egypt trade without oversight by his Palestinian Authority.
An Abbas aide, Nimr Hamad, appeared to criticize the emir's Gaza plans. During a trip to Egypt, Hamad said he hoped Arab nations would refrain from visits "that give Gaza a semi-independent status," adding that "this is very dangerous for the Palestinian issue."
Another West Bank official, former planning minister Samir Abdullah, said Qatar should use its leverage over Hamas to pressure it to agree to reconciliation.
"Changing the miserable situation in Gaza is something good," Abdullah said. "Nobody would look at it otherwise. But it shouldn't be used to encourage the separation between the West Bank and Gaza, or make reconciliation more difficult."
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed reporting