RAFAH, Palestinian Territories // Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has crossed into the Gaza Strip today in the first visit by a head of state since Hamas took over in 2007.
Live images broadcast on Al Jazeera satellite television showed the Qatari leader embracing Gaza's Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya after crossing into the Palestinian enclave from the Egyptian Sinai.
After standing to attention while the Palestinian and Qatari national anthems were played, the emir walked down a red carpet shaking hands with top Hamas officials.
Earlier the emir, travelling with his wife Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, landed at El Arish airport in the Egyptian Sinai and was flown by helicopter to the Rafah crossing where he entered Gaza at the head of a delegation which also includes Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani.
They were greeted by Haniya and his cabinet, as well as by Salah al-Aruri, a senior member of the Islamist movement's exiled leadership.
The visit coincides with a spike in tensions around Gaza, with an Israeli soldier severely wounded in a blast along the border early on Tuesday.
A day earlier, two militants were killed and four critically hurt in several air strikes, and another died later in the day in disputed circumstances.Hamas has vowed not to let the bloodshed go unavenged, while Israel has promised to hit back at anyone targeting soldiers or civilians.
During his brief visit, the emir will inaugurate a $254-million Qatari investment project to rebuild the impoverished and overcrowded Gaza Strip, which sustained major damage during a huge 22-day Israeli military operation which began late December 2008.
The emir will deliver more than $250 million in aid to the territory, a move that will bolster Hamas and ease its international isolation.