GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The emir of Qatar received a hero's welcome during a landmark visit to Gaza on Tuesday, becoming the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since the Islamist militant Hamas seized control of the coastal strip five years ago.
The landmark visit by Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani handed the ruling Hamas — branded terrorists by the West and isolated by an Israeli blockade — its biggest diplomatic victory since taking power. It was also a strong sign of the rising power of oil-rich Qatar, and the mounting influence of Hamas' parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, since last year's Arab Spring uprisings.
While Gazans celebrated the emir's arrival, the rival Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank was less enthusiastic. Israel condemned the visit as undermining peace.
Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Abbas' Fatah forces in 2007, and West Bank officials fear the emir's visit will give the Iranian-backed Hamas a lift in their feud and make the split between the two territories more permanent.
In a speech at Gaza's Islamic University, the emir urged the warring Palestinian factions to reconcile.
"Why are you staying divided?" he said. "There are no peace negotiations, and there is no clear strategy of resistance and liberation. Why shouldn't brothers sit together and reconcile?"
While Abbas has welcomed Qatar's plans to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to impoverished Gaza, he also stressed in a phone call with the Qatari leader this week that he is the internationally recognized leader of the Palestinians.
Israel, which brandishes Hamas as terrorist for its suicide bombings and strikes on Israeli civilian targets, denounced the visit.
"It is quite strange that the emir of Qatar should take sides with Hamas, that he will favor Hamas over Fatah that he would even decide to take sides in the Palestinian internal conflict," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor. "This is more than strange, especially since Hamas is internationally recognized as a terror group ... by hugging Hamas publicly, the emir of Qatar has thrown peace under the bus."
In Gaza, white and maroon Qatari flags flapped in the streets and a song called "Thank you, Qatar" played on the radio and on TV. In the border area, Hamas set up a large, carpeted greeting tent, reminiscent of a luxurious desert camp and staged an honor guard ceremony after the emir crossed into the territory from Egypt.
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.
"This man is bold. I like him. At least he came and visited us, and didn't play games promising like the others," said Majed Tawel, a 33-year-old teacher. "Hamas has won a new victory today and (Abbas) lost."
The emir was received by Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who said the visit sent a powerful message.
"Gaza is not alone and Palestine occupies the hearts of Arabs," Haniyeh said. "Your visit today officially announces the break of the economic blockade and political blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip by the forces of injustice."
He said the emir had promised a total of $400 million of aid projects, an increase over earlier plans for $250 million in aid. During his four-hour visit, the emir launched a housing project, hospital and received an honorary degree.
In a sudden change of schedule, the emir called off a planned public address in Gaza City's main soccer stadium. Hamas officials cited the emir's tight schedule, but the stadium was only sparsely filled at the time of the cancellation.
Instead, Sheik Hamad delivered a speech at a smaller venue at Gaza's Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold.
The emir was presented with an honorary doctorate and several presents, including a key from a Palestinian house in what is now Israel. Such keys are a symbol used by Palestinian refugees whose families lost homes during the war surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948.
The Qatari projects will bolster Hamas and help ease its economic woes. Although the Islamist group remains firmly in control, the Israeli blockade has hit Gaza's economy hard.
Israel imposed the blockade after the Hamas takeover in a failed effort to stir up Gazans against their violently anti-Israel rulers. It was forced to ease the land blockade after a deadly May 2010 raid on a blockade-busting flotilla, but still maintains a tight naval embargo in an effort to stem the weapons flow to the coastal territory. Egypt also bans most trade in and out of the coastal strip.
In addition, much of the international community shuns Hamas, a stance that forces it to rely heavily on an underground economy.
At the stadium, Gaza women piled into the back stands reserved for them hours ahead of the emir's speech. They sat under the watchful eye of Hamas policewomen in uniforms of long blue robes, light blue headscarves and navy hats.
"I'm desperate, trying to find a job for my son," said Kifaya Gharabli, 42, who came early in the morning in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Qatari visitors.
Part of the aid package is a $150 million housing project near the southern town of Khan Younis. It will be built near the site of a former Israeli settlement, abandoned when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. The project is called Hamad City — after the Qatari emir — and is expected to take about two years to build.
Gaza has been in dire need of building materials since an Israeli military offensive in early 2009, launched in response to years of Hamas rocket fire. Israel restricts the entry of building materials, saying they could be diverted by Hamas for bunkers or military use. In order to get around the Israeli blockade, Qatar plans to ship in the materials through the Egyptian border.
The emir's visit highlighted Qatar's efforts to make its mark on a region in turmoil, in part through a strategy of diverse alliances. The Gulf state expanded its regional influence during the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled dictators in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt last year, lending support to opposition and rebel forces.
At the same time, it hosts a major U.S. air base and thousands of American troops. And while Qatar is leading Arab calls to aid Syrian forces trying to topple Bashar Assad, it has close ties with Syria's key ally, Iran.
Qatar already wielded considerable indirect influence through pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, whose launch in 1996 was bankrolled by the Qatari government. It also won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, defeating far bigger bidders, including the United States and Japan.
Also, it demonstrated a bold independence in 1996 when it allowed Israel to open a trade office in the capital, Doha, following the signing of an interim peace accord with the Palestinians. But it shut that office after Israel's 2009 offensive in Gaza and began boosting aid to Hamas, whose leadership relocated to Qatar after leaving war-torn Syria.