(CNSNews) – Hamas, the Iranian-backed Palestinian terrorist group ruling the Gaza Strip moved a step closer to international acceptance Tuesday when it received its first visit from a head of state. The Obama administration chose not to criticize the move publicly.
The short visit by Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who crossed into Gaza from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, was characterized as a humanitarian mission, because he launched more than $200 million worth of housing and other projects.
But it had important political significance too, and Hamas “prime minister” Ismail Haniyeh praised the Gulf state leader for being the first to break what he described as a “political and economic blockade imposed on Gaza by the forces of injustice.”
Israel tightly controls entry into the coastal strip, from which members of Hamas and other militant groups regularly launch rocket attacks against nearby Israeli towns.
But the “political” blockade referred to by Haniyeh also refers to the policy laid down by the so-called Mideast “Quartet” – the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the U.N. – to shun Hamas until it meets specific criteria: recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and adhere to all previously signed Israel-Palestinian agreements.
Those criteria remain unmet, yet the State Department on Tuesday declined to take issue with the Qatari emir’s decision to visit.
Asked whether the administration considered the visit to be a recognition of “the legitimacy of the Hamas government,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland noted that “the Qataris have described this as a humanitarian mission.”
“I think we all have humanitarian concerns,” she added. “We would hope that the opportunity was taken to make clear the importance of Palestinians and Israelis talking to each other, and we’ve been very clear about our concerns about Hamas.”
Nuland, who confirmed that the Qataris had not notified the U.S. in advance of the planned visit, demurred when asked directly, “Do you support such a visit?”
“I think I’ve spoken to where we are on this whole range of issues,” she replied.
Nuland also said that the administration “of course remain[s] concerned about Hamas’ destabilizing role in Gaza and the region, and we urge all parties in the region to play a constructive role in bringing the Palestinians and the Israelis back to the negotiating table.”
Hamas, established in 1987 as a Palestinian arm of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has been designated by the U.S. government as a “foreign terrorist organization” since the mid-1990s. Its founding charter calls for Jews to be killed and states that all Muslims are duty-bound to join a jihad to destroy Israel.
Israel holds Hamas responsible for thousands of deadly terror attacks since the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993, from suicide bombings in Israeli cities to the launching of rockets from Gaza. It has also been responsible for the deaths of American citizens, including victims in bombings in Jerusalem in the late 1990s and early this century.
Before the visit, Hamad spoke by phone with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the sole recognized body administrating the self-rule areas. Abbas’ Fatah faction has for years been at odds with Hamas, which after winning P.A. legislative elections in 2006 violently expelled Fatah loyalists from Gaza and seized control of the territory.
The P.A.’s official news agency Wafa said Abbas in the phone call stressed the importance of pushing forward Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, but away from that diplomatic response Fatah was evidently unhappy about Hamad’s trip. A member of Fatah’s central committee, Hussein al-Sheikh, told Voice of Palestine radio, “we hope this visit will not serve those in Hamas who support division.”
The Israeli government did not welcome the visit either, with foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor questioning its wisdom as saying Hamad’s public embrace of Hamas “has thrown peace under the bus.”
Hamad’s visit was facilitated by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government, whose establishment this year has been a major boost for its Hamas affiliate.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in a brief statement welcomed Hamad’s visit “within the framework of efforts to break the siege on the people of Gaza,” according to Egypt’s state information service.
Qatar’s emir, who has promised Egypt $2 billion in aid, plans to hold talks with Morsi in Cairo on Wednesday.
Hamad’s visit to Gaza is significant in the broader regional maneuvering prompted by the “Arab spring” transitions and the ongoing civil war in Syria.
During the Mubarak era, Sunni Hamas looked to Shi’ite Iran for support, in spite of their sectarian differences. While that backing continues the Hamas-Tehran relationship has been troubled by Hamas’ support for Syrian rebels – including fellow Muslim Brotherhood members – fighting against the Assad regime, Iran’s closest ally.
Taking advantage of these developments Qatar – a small but gas-rich, Muslim Brothehood-friendly emirate which has sought growing influence in the region in recent years – has been trying to lure Hamas away from Iran and back into a Sunni camp that has been energized by Turkey’s emergent regional leadership and the rise of Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood as a result of the “Arab spring.”
Hours after Hamad left came a reminder of the continuing security crisis in the area, when Israel launched an airstrike on a northern Gaza target in retaliation for a bombing at the fence on the Gaza-Israel boundary earlier in the day.
The bombing, which was claimed by another terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, seriously wounded an Israeli soldier. Israeli television said the military had held off on the retaliatory strike until after the emir had left.
The Israeli military also reported that six rockets had been fired from Gaza into Israel during the day.
Israel’s tight security cordon around Gaza draws strong international criticism, although even a United Nations human rights panel – a body not known for sympathy towards Israel – conceded in a report last year that the blockade is a “legitimate security measure” and that its implementation “complied with the requirements of international law.”
The change of government in Egypt has opened the door to increased shipments of goods into Gaza from that country, although Morsi has demurred on proposals to establish a free trade zone with the strip.