The emir of Qatar will become the first head of state to enter the blockaded Gaza Strip today, in a high-profile visit breaking the isolation of the Hamas that seized power in 2007.
Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is officially visiting the Palestinian enclave to inaugurate reconstruction projects worth over $250 million, which an envoy of his oil-rich emirate unveiled in Gaza last week, Reuters reported. The project would involve the construction of roads, housing and infrastructure, as well as agricultural development.
His trip will be loaded with political symbolism. The emir will be the first foreign leader to go to Gaza under the rule of Hamas. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah issued a statement confirming the visit and urging “our people to express their good hospitality in welcoming the great visitor of Gaza.”
A Qatari delegation was expected come to Gaza yesterday to prepare the program and discuss details of the visit, Agence France-Presse reported.
Security was already being reinforced in places where the emir is expected to make a stop on the way from the Egyptian land border crossing at Rafah. Gaza, under partial blockade by Israel and Egypt, has no airport or seaport. Sheik al-Thani “told [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] of his desire to visit Gaza Strip to inaugurate some projects to reconstruct the strip,” the Palestinian Wafa news agency said.
“The president welcomed the effort by Qatar to support Gaza Strip, stressing on the unity of Palestinian land and ending division,” the agency added. It said Abbas urged Hamas to implement signed agreements for the reconciliation of the two rival movements.
Qatari emir’s visit shows he is backing Hamas rulers over Abbas, an Israeli official said yesterday. “We find it weird that the emir doesn’t support all of the Palestinians but sides with Hamas over the Palestinian Authority [in the West Bank] which he has never visited,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. “The emir has chosen his camp and it is not good,” he said.
Air stike kills two
Qatar has tried to mediate in a process of national reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas’s rival Fatah faction, and in February hosted talks between the Palestinian leader and his Hamas counterpart, Khaled Mashaal, who has recently shifted his political base from Damascus to Doha. So far, attempts to reconcile the two factions have failed.
The emir’s visit comes after Israeli air strikes killed two Gaza militants as they clashed with troops who crossed the border. The flare-up provoked threats of revenge from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas, and a pledge from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that there would be no immunity for those firing on Israel.
The first strike hit north of Beit Hanun, critically wounding four Qassam Brigades militants, one of whom later died of his injuries, medics said. Israel launched a second air strike east of Beit Hanun, killing a militant from the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC).