Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Emir starts historic Gaza visit

A Palestinian worker stands above a poster of the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (AP)
A Palestinian worker stands above a poster of the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (AP)

The emir of Qatar has received a hero's welcome in Gaza after becoming the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since Islamist militants Hamas seized control five years ago.

Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani's visit gave Hamas an important diplomatic victory. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the West and its rule of Gaza is not internationally recognised.

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' emir. While President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Qatar's plans to deliver more than 250 million dollars in aid to impoverished Gaza, he has also stressed that he is the internationally recognised leader of the Palestinians.

Hamas took control of Gaza from Mr Abbas' Fatah forces in 2007, and West Bank officials fear the emir's visit will deepen the split between the two territories. Mr 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 honour 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 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.

The emir cancelled a planned address to the Palestinians in Gaza City's main soccer stadium. The address had been the centrepiece of his visit. Hamas blamed the emir's tight schedule for the change. But the stadium was only about one-fifth full around the time of the cancellation.

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