Qatar visit breaks Gaza ice, delights Hamas
Gaza, October 23, 2012
The Emir of Qatar embraced the Hamas leadership of Gaza on Tuesday with an official visit breaking the isolation of the militant Palestinian Islamist movement.
Embarking on what was a state visit in all but name, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his wife Sheikha Mozah crossed from Egypt at the head of a large delegation, to be greeted by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and an honour guard.
Hundreds of Palestinians lined his route, waving Palestinian and Qatari flags as the convoy with the sheikh in a black Mercedes limousine bumped along the rutted main highway that Qatar has promised to rebuild.
"You are today, by this visit, declaring the breaking of the unjust blockade," Haniyeh told the Qatari leader in a speech at the site of a new town to be built with emirate money.
"Today we declare victory against the blockade through this historic visit," he said. "We say thank you, Emir, thank you Qatar for this noble Arab stance ... Hail to the blood of martyrs which brought us to this moment."
Hamas rejects a peace treaty with Israel and has poured scorn on Abbas for his futile efforts to negotiate his way to a Palestinian state.
This was the first visit to Gaza by any national leader since Hamas seized control of the enclave and its 1.7 million people from Abbas's forces in 2007. Israel had pulled out its troops and settlers from the territory two years earlier.
Qatar has called the visit a humanitarian gesture, to inaugurate reconstruction projects financed by the emirate. After initially earmarking $250 million for the schemes, a smiling Haniyeh announced the fund now stood at $400 million.
Qatar, whose native population is only about the same size as that of the Gaza Strip, has ambitions to parlay its vast natural gas wealth into diplomatic and regional influence. It was a major supporter of Islamist groups who have been the biggest beneficiaries of the Arab Spring.
Analysts see the visit as an attempt by the emir to use his leverage with Western capitals to help rehabilitate Hamas in Western eyes, and move them into mainstream politics, using their falling out with Shi'ite Iran over the conflict in Syria as a stepping stone to break Tehran influence on them for good.
Israel said it was "astounding" that Qatar, a US-allied Gulf state whose oil and gas permit it to punch way above its diplomatic weight, would take sides in the Palestinian dispute and endorse Hamas, branded as terrorists in the West. The emir had "thrown peace under the bus", an Israeli spokesman said.
The Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean coast, is all but cut off from the world, under blockade by Israel and Egypt by land and sea to obstruct the import of arms and military equipment.
In the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas's arch-rival, said it hoped the visit would not undermine efforts to rebuild Palestinian unity or signal approval for a separate Palestinian territory in Gaza.
"NO SIGN" OF HAMAS CHANGE
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the emir, who has met Israeli leaders but not visited the Palestinian Authority of Abbas and his secular Fatah movement in the West Bank, had "never dignified the PA with a visit".
"No one understands why he would fund an organisation which has become notorious with committing suicide bombings and firing rockets on civilians. By hugging Hamas, the Emir of Qatar is really someone who has thrown peace under the bus," he said. - Reuters