By IBRAHIM BARZAK, Associated Press
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The emir of Qatar received a hero's welcome in 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 Palestianian government of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank was less enthusiastic.
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.
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 was to open a housing project and a hospital and also address a packed crowd at Gaza City's main soccer stadium.
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.