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Emir of Qatar visits Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, pledges $400 million

The Emir of Qatar has become the first head of state to visit Gaza since the Islamist group Hamas seized control five years ago. The visit reflects increasing ties between the Gulf state and the regime which is considered a terrorist group by the West.  Lindsey Hilsum Channel Four Europe reports.

Updated 4:10 p.m. ET -- DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - The emir of Qatar embraced the Hamas leadership of Gaza on Tuesday with an official visit that broke the isolation of the Palestinian Islamist movement, to the dismay of Israel and rival, Western-backed Palestinian leaders.

Israel said it was "astounding" that Qatar, a U.S.-allied Gulf state whose oil and gas permit it to punch way above its diplomatic weight, would take sides in the Palestinian dispute and endorse Hamas, branded as terrorists in the West. The emir had "thrown peace under the bus," an Israeli spokesman said.

But some analysts saw a daring move, aimed at rehabilitating Hamas in Western eyes in order to coax it into the peace camp at a time of Arab Spring revolts and civil war in Syria, have been reshaping power balances across the Middle East.

Mohammed Abed / Pool via Reuters

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh welcomes the Emir of Qatar Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, right, to Gaza at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Oct. 23.

The emir, who is rare among Arab rulers in having met senior Israeli officials, denounced Israel's policies and praised people in Gaza for standing up to it with "bare chests" -- but he also urged rival Palestinian leaders to abandon their feuds.

The emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who has led Arab efforts to support rebels in Syria and Libya during Arab Spring revolts, left Doha with a large delegation and was welcomed with a red carpet. Among those traveling with him were his wife, Sheikh Moza, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim and other ministers, the official Qatar News Agency reported. 

Hundreds of Palestinians lined his route, waving Palestinian and Qatari flags as the emir's black Mercedes limousine bumped along the rutted main highway Qatar has promised to rebuild.

"Today we declare victory over the blockade through this historic visit," Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told the Qatari monarch in a speech at the site of a new town to be built with the emirate's money. "Thank you emir, thank you Qatar, for this noble Arab stance. ... Hail to the blood of martyrs that brought us to this moment."

Hamas, whose suicide bombing campaign against Israel was at a peak a decade ago, rejects a peace treaty and has poured scorn on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah movement, for his efforts to negotiate his way to a Palestinian state. That peace process with Israel is stalled.

Mohammed Abed / Pool via EPA

Qatar's first lady, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, left, walks alongside the wife of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, during a welcome ceremony at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

Sheikh Hamad slammed Israeli settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. "The Palestinian cause ... remains a bleeding wound in the Arab body as Israel continues every day to change the face of Palestinian land through its settlement activities and Judaisation in the occupied West Bank and especially in Jerusalem," he told an audience at Gaza's Islamic University.

But he blamed some of the failure on Palestinian infighting, which had undermined "resistance." "Surely you realize that your division is the source of greater harm to your cause and the cause of all Arabs," he said. "It is time you end the chapter of differences and open a wide chapter for reconciliation."

"This visit has great political significance," said Hamas government spokesman Taher al-Nunu, according to AlJazeera.com. "[The emir] is the first Arab leader to break the political siege."

Gaza, under partial blockade by Israel and Egypt, has no airport or seaport, and the Qatari delegation is believed to have entered by land from Egypt.

Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi said he welcomed the emir's visit to Gaza, according to a late night statement from his office quoted by AlJazeera.com.

US, Israel ready for huge joint drill in Iran's shadow

This was the first visit to Gaza by any national leader since Hamas seized control of the enclave where 1.7 million people live from Abbas's forces in 2007. Israel had pulled out its troops and settlers from the territory two years earlier.

Qatar has called the visit a humanitarian gesture, to inaugurate reconstruction projects financed by the emirate. After initially earmarking $250 million for the schemes, a smiling Haniyeh announced the fund now stood at $400 million.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States was concerned about the "destabilizing" role of Hamas in the region.

"The Qataris have described this as a humanitarian mission," she said. "We would hope that the opportunity was taken to make clear the importance of Palestinians and Israelis talking to each other."

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

Hamas security forces sit between posters of senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, left, and Qatar's Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who is set to visit the Gaza Strip on Tuesday. He will be the first head of state to enter the blockaded Gaza Strip.

The visit will not include a meeting with Abbas, whose authority extends over the West Bank. The emir notified Abbas of his visit in a phone call on Sunday, according to the Jerusalem Post.

More Middle East & North African coverage on NBCNews.com

“We can’t welcome the visit of the emir and his wife to the Gaza Strip,” political analyst Adel Abdel Rahman, who is affiliated with Fatah, told the paper. “The visit does not serve the unity of the Palestinian territories, the people and the political system. On the contrary, the visit poses a threat to unity and our political system.”

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. 

Israeli forces strike Gaza targets after rocket salvo

Israel and Gaza are in a state of perpetual low-level conflict, marked by sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza by Islamic militant groups and air strikes by the Israeli forces.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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