Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said that Qatar’s emir’s Tuesday’s visit to the Gaza Strip was helping to lift Israel’s blockade, the Ma’an news agency reports.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani was the first head of state to enter Gaza since Hams took over, back in 1999.
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.
The tiny Gulf emirate, whose native population is only about the same size as that of the Gaza Strip, hosts one of the biggest US bases in the region. At the same time, it was a major supporter of Islamist groups during the “Arab Spring.” Qatar owns the Al Jazeera television network.
“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 Gulf 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.”
Embarking on what was a state visit in all but name, Sheikh al-Thani and his wife Sheikha Mozah crossed from Egypt at the head of a large delegation, to be greeted by Haniyeh and an honor guard.
Thousands 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.
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.
Haniyeh said the emir had agreed to fund additional projects and to increase funding of existing plans.
Qatar will build a $25 million city for released prisoners, and has increased its funding for another new city in the Gaza Strip by $15 million, he said.
The Gaza premier said Qatar had also agreed to grant $8 million to build a youth rehabilitation center and to donate an extra $13 million to a hospital so patients could be treated in Gaza rather than traveling abroad.
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.
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 organization 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,” Palmor said.
The Gaza Strip is all but cut off from the world, under blockade by Israel and Egypt by land and sea.
Sheikh Hamad has sought to mediate between Hamas and Fatah in the past, to end the divisions but analysts say there is for now no prospect of reconciliation between the two factions.