GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – 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 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. 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.
Officials in the West Bank made clear their displeasure with the way the visit was handled.
“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.
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.
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