Israeli airstrikes target Gaza on eve of Qatari emir's landmark visit
GAZA CITY // Israel carried out lethal airstrikes in the Gaza Strip yesterday as the territory's Palestinian residents awaited a landmark visit by Qatar's emir.
The expected arrival today of Sheikh Hamad Ben Khalifa Al Thani would make him the first Arab head of state in this Israeli-besieged enclave since the Palestinian Islamist group took control five years ago.
Presiding over the inauguration of Qatar-financed development projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the 60-year-old leader also is to meet intellectuals and Hamas officials during a 10-hour stopover, according to an itinerary released by the Hamas-run information ministry.
Analysts have called the visit a reward for Hamas's decision last year to break ties with the Syrian regime of president Bashar Al Assad by dismantling its long-standing headquarters in Damascus.
They also described it as a setback for the group's Palestinian rival, Fatah, which is headed by Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas.
"We find it weird that the emir doesn't support all of the Palestinians but sides with Hamas over the Palestinian Authority (in the West Bank) which he has never visited," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. "The emir has chosen his camp and it is not good".
To many of Gaza's 1.6 million residents, the Qatari leader's high-profile visit and investment has raised hope this will pull them out of their bleak financial situation and offer diplomatic support against Israel and its blockade of the territory.
"God willing, this will end the siege on our society, bring our economy back to life and give us jobs," Nahed Al Qader, an unemployed 45-year-old who relies on charity and United Nations handouts, said from his home in Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp. "We thank Sheikh Hamad for being brave and breaking the siege."
Israeli tanks and military vehicles crossed into northern Gaza yesterday, triggering retaliatory shelling by militants in the Beit Hanoun. At least two militants in the area were reportedly killed by Israeli air strikes, and Hamas' armed wing, Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades, vowed revenge.
Hamas, which officially calls for Israel's destruction, has maintained a de facto but unsteady ceasefire with Israel after it attacked the Gaza Strip during a devastating three-week war that began in December 2008.
While Palestinian officials say Doha intends to spend as much as half a billion dollars in rebuilding damaged from the 200-2009 war, Sheikh Hamad's visit has alarmed Mr Abbas and his government in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The Qatari leader informed Mr Abbas of the visit during a telephone conversation on Sunday, the PA news agency Wafa reported.
Despite efforts by Doha and Cairo to reconcile Hamas with Fatah, the factions have been unable mend their differences since the Islamist group defeated Fatah forces here in 2007. Because of their lingering split, today's visit has been viewed with cynicism in some Palestinian social media forums and among some Gazans as well.
"Our first priority, and the priority of the Arab world, should be repairing the Palestinian leadership so it will act as one hand again," said Mohammed Maqadama, 41, an advertising agent from Gaza City.
He dismissed the visit as "politics" and painted in a conspiratorial note, arguing that aiding Hamas without first pushing Palestinian reconciliation would ultimately benefit Israel.
"We know Israel's end goal is to divide the Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank and push Gazans into Egypt," he said. "This visit should instead be used to stop this from happening."
* Agence France-Presse contributed reporting
Updated: October 23, 2012 04:00 AM