Qatar's emir to head to Hamas-ruled Gaza

By Ibrahim Barzak

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Oct. 21 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Palestinian youth walks near a poster of Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, left, and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in Gaza City, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012. The poster announces the coming visit of the Emir of Qatar, it reads, "Thank You Qatar."

Hatem Moussa, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The ruler of Qatar is expected in the Gaza Strip this week, in what would be a major stamp of legitimacy for the territory's Islamic militant Hamas rulers.

Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani would be the first head of state to arrive here since Hamas seized Gaza five years ago, setting a strong signal that the Islamic militants are emerging from international isolation.

The leader of the Gulf emirate is also set to launch $254 million worth of construction projects, including three roads, a hospital and a new town that will bring thousands of jobs to the impoverished territory.

Hamas' Palestinian opponents in the West Bank were watching the emir's plans with some concern. They fear that any gestures that strengthen Hamas' hold on Gaza will make the Islamists less inclined to end the Palestinian political rift.

The emir's Gaza trip was not coordinated with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas' main rival, said a senior official in Abbas' Fatah movement. The emir was to speak to the West Bank-based Abbas by phone later Sunday, the official said on condition of anonymity because he did not want to upset the Qataris.

The Palestinian rift broke open in 2007, after Hamas seized Gaza from the internationally backed Abbas. Since then, the two camps have run rival governments, Hamas in Gaza and Abbas in parts of the Israeli-controlled West Bank. Abbas hopes to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem with Israel, while Hamas believes such efforts are a waste of time and instead is tightening its hold on Gaza.

Repeated reconciliation attempts between Abbas and Hamas have failed, with neither side willing to give up power in their respective territories. Earlier this year, the emir of Qatar brought together Abbas and Hamas' supreme leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, for yet another deal. Under the arrangement signed in Doha, Abbas was to lead an interim unity government to pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories.

However, senior Hamas officials in Gaza accused Mashaal at the time of not consulting with them first and torpedoed the deal, unwilling to give Abbas a renewed foothold in Gaza. Hamas has been holding secret leadership elections since then, and Mashaal announced last month he is no longer seeking another term in the top spot.

The upcoming visit by the Qatari ruler — a boon to Hamas — has been shrouded in secrecy. By late Sunday, Qatar had not made a formal announcement, leaving open the possibility that it could be called off at the last minute because of concerns over security or the political ramifications.

However, an Egyptian security official and officials in Gaza involved in arranging the trip said the emir is expected for a four-hour visit Tuesday. He is to be accompanied by some 50 people, including his wife, his prime minister, business leaders, intellectuals and security officials, they said on condition of anonymity because no formal date has been announced.

Qatar expanded its regional influence during the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled dictators in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt last year, lending support to protesters linked to the region wide Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, but has adopted a more militant ideology as part of its conflict with Israel.

In anticipation of the emir's visit, Gaza's streets have been decorated with billboards in Arabic and English reading, "Thanks, Qatar, you fulfilled the promise."

Palestinian officials said the emir and his entourage will be met by an honor guard as they cross from Egypt into Gaza through the Rafah passenger terminal there. Gaza's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, is to greet the emir at Rafah and also host him at his office in Gaza City, the officials said.

The Qatari ruler is also expected to tour the sites of the projects funded by Qatar, including a hospital for the handicapped, a new town and the overhaul of three main roads.

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