Hamas Leader Lauds Visiting Qatar Emir for 'Breaking' Gaza Blockade

Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who has led Arab efforts to support rebels in Syria and Libya during Arab Spring revolts, is the first head of state to visit since Hamas coup.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on Tuesday welcomed the emir of Qatar to the Gaza Strip, in what was the first visit by a head of state to the coastal territory since the Islamic group took power there in 2007.

Haniyeh told Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani that by visiting the coastal territory, he had broken "the economic and political blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip by a cruel enemy trying to subjugate the Palestinians".

Speaking at a dedication ceremony laying the cornerstone for a new city in the Khan Younis area, Haniyeh declared that the new municipality would be named Hamad, in honor of the Qatari emir.

Al-Thani crossed into Gaza from Egypt at the head of a large delegation on what is billed as a humanitarian visit to inaugurate $250 million worth of reconstruction projects..

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas's arch-rival, said it hoped the visit would not undermine efforts to rebuild Palestinian unity or signal approval for a separate Palestinian territory.

An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said it was "astounding" that Qatar was taking sides, noting that the emir "has never dignified the PA with a visit".

Hamas seized control of the enclave in 2007 after a brief battle with the armed wing of Abbas' Fatah movement. It refusesto renounce violence or to recognize Israel's right to exist and it is ostraciszed by the West as a terrorist organization.

Haniyeh denies Hamas is seeking to create its own state in the tiny enclave, which is under partial blockade by Israel, with Egypt helping to enforce the Jewish state's restrictions.

The emir and his large delegation were greeted by a Hamashonor guard and Palestinian and Qatari flags decorated ther oute on the main road north to the city of Gaza, a key highwaythat Qatar will rebuild.

His visit coincided with another round in the low-level conflict between Israel and Hamas. An Israeli officer was badly wounded by an explosion on the Gaza border and Prime MinisterBenjamin Netanyahu promised a "strong response", which oftencomes in the form of Israeli air strikes.

The emir was due to make a public appearance in one of Gaza's largest soccer stadiums, and security arrangements have been in place for days ahead of the visit, seen by Hamas as a victory after five years of isolation.

Western-allied Gulf Arab states are trying to lure Hamas away from its alliance with Iran, whose nuclear energy program has raised the prospect of a war with Israel.

Qatar's emir has met Israeli leaders in the past and is working hard to boost the diplomatic clout of his small country.

He has also previously sought to mediate between Hamas and Fatah to end the divisions that have weakened the Palestinian cause.

Hamas says his trip would mark the beginning of the end of Israel's blockade policy.