x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Influential Muslim cleric visits Hamas-ruled Gaza

Leading Muslim cleric Sheikh Youssef Al Qaradawi paid a high-profile visit to Gaza yesterday, giving a boost to the Islamist group Hamas that runs the territory, but also laying bare Palestinian rivalries.

Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh kisses the hand of Egyptian cleric and chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Sheikh Youssef Al Qaradawi.
Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh kisses the hand of Egyptian cleric and chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Sheikh Youssef Al Qaradawi.

GAZA // Leading Muslim cleric Sheikh Youssef Al Qaradawi paid a high-profile visit to Gaza yesterday, giving a boost to the Islamist group Hamas that runs the territory, but also laying bare Palestinian rivalries.

Sheikh Al Qaradawi, chairman of the International Federation of Muslim Clerics, is based in Qatar and has been a vociferous supporter of the uprisings that have shaken the Arab world in the last two years.

Soon after arriving in the Gaza Strip, the 87-year-old Egyptian-born cleric called on Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims to work together to bring about the downfall of Israel.

"We should seek to liberate Palestine, all of Palestine, inch by inch," said Sheikh Al Qaradawi, who has gained a large following in the Muslim world thanks to regular appearances on Al Jazeera television.

His words were in line with the position of Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist.

Sheikh Al Qaradawi was greeted by Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Gaza's Hamas government, which has worked hard to bolster its international standing by inviting senior figures to the territory.

"Palestine today welcomes the Sheikh of the Arab Spring, the Sheikh of the revolution and the Sheikh of Jihad in Palestine," Mr Haniyeh said in a welcome speech.

The emir of Qatar made a historic visit to Gaza last year and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has promised to travel to Gaza this month.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who holds sway over parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, argues that foreign visits to Gaza undermine his own position as leader of the Palestinian people.

Mahmoud Al Habbash, the Palestinian minister of religious affairs, based in the West Bank, said Sheikh Al Qaradawi's visit would reinforce internal divisions and support the "separatist entity" Hamas had established in Gaza.

Fatah supporters shunned the reception thrown for Qaradawi.

Hamas fought a brief civil war against Abbas's Fatah faction in 2007 for full control of Gaza.

Israel, which has imposed a blockade on Gaza in a stated attempt to prevent weapons reaching Hamas, had no immediate comment on Sheikh Al Qaradawi's arrival. He is due to leave Gaza tomorrow.

The cleric gained notoriety in the West when he came out firmly in support of suicide attacks carried out by Palestinian groups against Israeli targets during an intifada that began in 2000 and petered out in 2005.