The Qatari Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, on Tuesday became the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since Hamas, the Islamic group, grabbed power there in 2007, exacerbating a political rift among Palestinians that has undermined their cause and proved exceedingly difficult to mend.
The billionaire Arab royal landed in Egypt’s Sinai desert, then drove to the Gaza border crossing in Rafah where Hamas leaders greeted him with kisses, a red carpet, and an honor guard. As he made his way across Gaza, Qatari flags fluttered from buildings and street corners, alongside Palestinian ones.
Officially, Sheikh Hamad, as his subjects refer to him, was there to inaugurate some of the $250 million worth of development projects that Qatar is funding in Gaza. The investments are seen as a huge boon for the tiny coastal strip, which Israel has blockaded for years and regularly pounds with artillery or air strikes following Palestinian rocket attacks.
But the visit, which has angered Palestinian leaders of the rival Fatah party who control the West Bank, is also rife with political significance. For Hamas, branded a terrorist group by Europe and the United States, it’s a much-pined-for conferral of recognition and legitimacy. More broadly, it’s seen as a sign of the shifting alliances wrought by Arab uprisings in the region over the past two years.
“I think the Qataris are trying to orchestrate the new map of the Middle East and the way to do that is to invest and support the political systems of various countries,” said Munther Dajani, a Palestinian political scientist at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.
Dajani said that Qatar was also trying to influence politics in Egypt and Tunisia, where Sunni Islamists have come to the fore after revolutions ousted autocratic regimes. “The Qataris know very well they are supporting a government in Gaza that took power through a coup d’état,” he said. “I think they’re committing a mistake by doing that.”
Other analysts pointed out that Hamas desperately needs new benefactors, having lost the longstanding political and financial support of Syria. For years the group’s headquarters was based in Damascus, but earlier this year, President Bashar al-Assad expelled a top Hamas member for siding with the rebels in Syria’s 18-month civil war. Iran, which is Assad’s main ally in the region, has also cooled on the Gaza-based Islamic group.
“Hamas is in play now. It’s looking for new friends and alliances,” said Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “Considering that vacuum, Qatar wants to take advantage of it and pull Hamas in a new direction.”
Hamid said the visit would raise the public standing of Sheikh Hamad, who is already being hailed as a hero by Palestinians and other Arabs critical of Israel’s siege on Gaza.
Dressed in a long white robe and white kaffieh, Hamad on Tuesday toured Gaza with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who was donning a suit and tie. At a dedication ceremony for a housing complex that Qatari money will help build, Haniyeh said Hamad had broken “the economic and political blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip by a cruel enemy trying to subjugate the Palestinians.”
In addition to housing, the Qatari investment will help build two main roads traversing Gaza, a hospital, and several schools, according to Palestinian officials.
Several years ago, Israel bombed much of Gaza’s infrastructure in a protracted offensive known as Cast Lead, which was prompted by rocket attacks from Palestinians in Gaza. The damage from the offensive—along with Israel’s decision to restrict imports and exports—have contributed to the ravaging of Gaza’s economy.Since then Israel has launched periodic strikes against Gaza, usually prompted by Palestinian rocket fire. In the latest Israeli strike, on Monday, planes attacked a team of rocket launchers in northern Gaza, killing two militants.
The visit by Hamad marked one of those rare moments when Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could agree on something. Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Qatar had shown it clearly favors Hamas over Abbas.
“Qatar has changed over the past few years and now sides much more openly with Muslim Brotherhood groups all around the world,” he told the Daily Beast. “This is foremost a Palestinian story…but we are definitely not indifferent to what happens there.”
Sami Abdel-Shafi, a Gazan financial consultant, said that Qatar deserves nothing but gratitude for the investment.
“My question for those to criticize the intervention is ‘what do you expect?’ Ordinary people continue to be deprived of basic facilities,” said Abdel-Shafi.
“So if someone positively intervenes in this, they should not be criticized. The political divisions are not their problem.”