GAZA CITY // 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 there five years ago.
The visit by Sheikh Hamad Ben Khalifa Al Thani gave the coastal strip's Hamas rulers, branded terrorists by the West and isolated by an Israeli blockade, their biggest diplomatic victory since taking power.
It is almost certain to give Hamas a lift in its feud with the rival government of Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
The visit reflects the rising influence of Hamas' parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, since last year's Arab Spring uprisings. The Brotherhood and other Islamist groups have made gains in neighboring Egypt and elsewhere throughout in the region. Qatar has been a key ally of rebel and opposition movements during the uprisings. The emir was joined by the education minister from Egypt's new Islamist-led government.
Abbas has expressed deep reservations about the visit of oil-rich Qatar's emir. While he has welcomed Qatar's plans to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to impoverished Gaza, he also stressed in a phone call with the Qatari leader this week that he is the internationally recognised leader of the Palestinians.
Hamas took control of Gaza from Abbas' Fatah forces in 2007, and West Bank officials fear the emir's visit make the split between the two territories more permanent. Abbas seeks to create a united independent state comprising the two areas plus east Jerusalem. But attempts to reconcile the two governments, including an agreement brokered by Qatar early this year, have all failed to be implemented.
The emir crossed into Gaza from Egypt, and was greeted and embraced by Haniyeh. The Qatari and Palestinian national anthems were played before an honour guard ceremony.
"This visit sends a direct message to anyone who wants to listen: Gaza is not alone in the field and Palestine occupies the hearts of Arabs," Haniyeh said. "Your visit today officially announces the break of the economic blockade and political blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip by the forces of injustice."
He said the emir had promised a total of $400 million of aid projects, an increase over earlier plans for $250 million in aid.
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 Qatari development projects 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.
Early Tuesday, the Israeli military said an explosion near the Gaza border fence wounded one soldier. The military had no further details about the blast.