By Nouran El-Behairy and Nasser El Azazy
Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani visited Gaza on Tuesday, the first visit by a head of state since Hamas took over the strip in 2007.
The Qatari Emir accompanied by his wife Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani – and a delegation of 50 representatives of Qatari ministries and senior businessmen – were received by North Sinai Governor Al-Sayed Harhour and Minister of Higher Education Mostafa Mosaad at Arish international airport where the Emir took a helicopter to Rafah border crossing.
An official source at Arish airport who chose to remain anonymous said that security units from the presidency took over the supervision and management of the airport and the Rafah crossing on Monday.
The visit lasted only four hours, during which the Emir inaugurated a Qatari investment project worth $254 million to rebuild the strip damaged by Israeli raids since 2008.
In Gaza, people received the Emir with Qatari and Palestinian flags along with huge billboards reading “Thank you, Qatar, you kept your promise” reported AFP.
He was welcomed by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and his cabinet, as well as Salah al-Aruri, a senior member of Hamas movement’s exiled leadership.
From Rafah, the Emir left for Khan Younis where he laid the foundation stone for Hamad’s city where one thousand homes will be built for poor families.
He inaugurated the renovation project of Salah Al-Din Street then he went to Gaza city to meet the cabinet, officials and parliamentarians and finally to the northern Gaza Strip to inaugurate a hospital and a centre for artificial limbs.
“This visit has great political significance,” Hamas government spokesman Taher Al-Nunu told AFP on Monday. “He is the first Arab leader to break the political siege.”
The visit is significant for Hamas who forcibly took over Gaza in 2007; ousted forces loyal to Palestinian Authority in Ramallah led by president Mahmoud Abbas and was consequently boycotted by international bodies.
Israel criticised the visit, saying that the Emir apparently didn’t support all Palestinians but sides with Hamas; “the emir has chosen his camp and it is not good,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told AFP on Monday.
This is considered the Emir’s second visit ever to Gaza, the last time was in 1999 when he was welcomed by late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Hamas spiritual leader late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
Qatar had tried to mediate between Hamas and Fatah and Hosted negotiations between Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who recently moved his political base from Damascus to Doha.
The Emir’s visit was supposed to be last week but it was postponed for security reasons related to escalating Israeli bombardment of Gaza, according to Hamas sources.