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Qatari emir causes stir with visit to Gaza

The Emir of Qatar has visited Hamas-controlled Gaza in a landmark trip that has united West Bank leaders and Israel in their opposition. The strip of land is under a political and economic blockade.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani crossed into Gaza from Egypt on Tuesday via the Rafah border post, where he was met by the leader of Gaza's Hamas government, Ismail Haniya.

The visit marks a break in diplomatic isolation for Gaza, which has been boycotted by foreign dignitaries since Hamas came to power there. The strip of land has also been the subject of an Israeli-Egyptian enforced blockade since 2007.

Speaking to the sheikh, Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya declared the visit as a "victory."

"You are officially declaring the end of the political and economic blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip by the forces of injustice and tyranny," he told the emir.

During his visit, Al Thani inaugurated a 307-million-euro ($400-million) rebuilding project in the impoverished territory, which was badly damaged during a 22-day occupation by Israel in 2008. "Today we demolish the wall of the blockade through this visit, thank you Qatar!" said Prime Minister Haniya.

Condemnation from outside

Streets were festooned with flags representing both Qatar and Hamas, with banners thanking the Gulf state for its support. Palestinians lined the route as Sheikh Hamad and the delegation - including his wife Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and the Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani - made their way towards an official reception.

Israel described the visit by the ruler of oil-rich Qatar, a US allied state, as "astounding," given that the ruling Hamas group has been described by Western powers as a terrorist organization.

The visit was condemned by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, from the Fatah Party, in light of a bitter political split that has divided Gaza from the West Bank.

Efforts to reconcile the two largest Palestinian movements, forming a national unity government across the West Bank and Gaza, have so far proved unsuccessful.

rc/sej (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)