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.
Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani's visit gave Gaza's Hamas rulers an important diplomatic victory. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the West and its rule of Gaza is not internationally recognized.
The visit reflects the rising influence of Hamas' parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, since last year's Arab Spring uprisings. Along with the Brotherhood in Egypt, Islamist groups have made gains throughout in the region and Qatar has been a key ally of rebel and opposition movements.
The rival Palestinian government in the West Bank has expressed deep reservations over the visit of oil-rich Qatar's emir. While Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Qatar's plans to deliver more than $250 in aid to impoverished Gaza, he has also stressed that he is the internationally recognized leader of the Palestinians.
Hamas took control of Gaza from Abbas' Fatah forces in 2007, and West Bank officials fear the emir's visit will deepen the split between the two territories. Abbas seeks to create an independent state in the two areas, along with east Jerusalem.
The emir crossed into Gaza from Egypt, and was greeted and embraced by Hamas' Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The Qatari and Palestinian national anthems were played before an honor guard ceremony.
White and maroon Qatari flags flapped in the streets and a song called "Thank you, Qatar" was playing on the radio and on TV ahead of the visit. In the border area, Hamas set up a large, carpeted greeting tent, reminiscent of a luxurious desert camp. Qatari and Palestinian flags and pictures of the emir and Haniyeh were hung inside the tent.
The emir's aid of $250 million to the territory will bolster Hamas and help ease its economic woes. An Israeli blockade meant to weaken Hamas has hit Gaza's economy hard, though the Islamic group remains firmly in control.
During his four-hour visit, the emir will open a housing project and a hospital and will address a packed crowd at Gaza City's main soccer stadium.
At the stadium, Gaza women piled into the back stands reserved for them hours ahead of the speech. They sat under the watchful eye of Hamas policewomen in uniforms of long blue robes, light blue headscarves and navy hats.
"I'm desperate, trying to find a job for my son," said Kifaya Gharabli, 42, who came early in the morning in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Qatari visitors.
Part of the aid package is a $150 million housing project near the southern town of Khan Younis. It will be built near the site of a former Israeli settlement, abandoned when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. The project is called Hamad City — after the Qatari emir — and will take about two years to build.
Gaza has been in desperate need of building materials since an Israeli military offensive in early 2009. Israel restricts the entrance of building materials, saying they could be diverted by Hamas for bunkers or military use. In order to get around the Israeli blockade, Qatar plans to ship in the materials through the Egyptian border.
Israel launched its offensive in response to years of Hamas rocket fire. Though the rocket attacks have slowed, fighting persists along Israel's southern border and various militant groups, including al-Qaida-inspired Salafis, remain active in the territory.