JERUSALEM — The emir of Qatar on Tuesday became the first head of state to visit the Gaza Strip since Hamas wrested control of it in 2007, the latest step in a campaign by the tiny Persian Gulf nation to leverage its outsize pocketbook in support of Islamists across the region.
The emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, pledged $400 million to build two housing complexes, rehabilitate three main roads and create a prosthetic center, among other projects, a transformational infusion of cash at a time when foreign aid to the Palestinian territories has been in free fall.
The sheik, his wife and the Qatari prime minister led a large delegation that entered Gaza from Egypt and sped through streets lined with people waving Qatari and Palestinian flags in a convoy of black Mercedes-Benzes and armored Toyotas.
"Today you are a big guest, great guest, declaring officially the breaking of the political and economic siege that was imposed on Gaza," Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister, told the emir and his cohort as they sat on sofas in a white shed in the southern town of Khan Younis, where they plan to erect 1,000 apartments. "Today, we declare the victory on this siege through this blessed, historic visit."
In the West Bank, allies of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, who has struggled to preserve his own legitimacy, warned that the visit set a dangerous precedent of Arab leaders' embracing Haniya as a head of state and thus cleaving the Palestinian people and territory in two.
"We call on the Qatari prince or his representative to visit the West Bank too!" blared a headline on an editorial in the leading Al Quds newspaper.
The visit signaled just how much the region has changed for Hamas since the advent of the Arab Spring. Where Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak once allied with Saudi Arabia to squeeze Hamas by keeping the border largely closed, Egypt under a new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, opened the crossing to allow the emir's visit. The visit also reflected the foreign policy that has allowed Qatar to straddle competing worlds, bankrolling political movements like Hamas while maintaining strong links to Washington.