Gaza City: The emir of Qatar received a hero`s welcome during a landmark visit to Gaza Tuesday, becoming the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since the Islamist militant Hamas seized control of the coastal strip five years ago.
The landmark visit by Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani handed the ruling Hamas, branded terrorists by the West and isolated by an Israeli blockade, its biggest diplomatic victory since taking power.
It was also a strong sign of the rising power of oil-rich Qatar, and the mounting influence of Hamas` parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, since last year`s Arab Spring uprisings.
While Gazans celebrated the emir`s arrival, the rival Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank was less enthusiastic. Israel condemned the visit as undermining peace.
Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Abbas` Fatah forces in 2007, and West Bank officials fear the emir`s visit will give the Iranian-backed Hamas a lift in their feud and make the split between the two territories more permanent.
In a speech at Gaza`s Islamic University, the emir urged the warring Palestinian factions to reconcile.
"Why are you staying divided?" he said. "There are no peace negotiations, and there is no clear strategy of resistance and liberation. Why shouldn`t brothers sit together and reconcile?"
While Abbas 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.
Israel, which brandishes Hamas as terrorist for its suicide bombings and strikes on Israeli civilian targets, denounced the visit.
"It is quite strange that the emir of Qatar should take sides with Hamas, that he will favour Hamas over Fatah that he would even decide to take sides in the Palestinian internal conflict," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor.
"This is more than strange, especially since Hamas is internationally recognised as a terror group ... By hugging Hamas publicly, the emir of Qatar has thrown peace under the bus."
In Gaza, white and maroon Qatari flags flapped in the streets and a song called "Thank you, Qatar" played on the radio and on TV.