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Qatar’s Emir crosses into Hamas-run Gaza on landmark visit

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The Emir of Qatar entered the Gaza Strip on Tuesday for a visit that will raise the prestige of its isolated Islamist rulers in the Hamas movement, but disappoint Israel and mainstream Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani crossed into Gaza from Egypt at the head of a large delegation on what is billed as a humanitarian visit to inaugurate a multi-million-dollar worth of reconstruction projects.

“The emir agreed to increase Qatari investment from $254 million to $400 million,” Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya said during a press conference in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza to mark the emir’s visit.

The Qatari leader was given a red-carpet welcome by Hamas officials as he crossed into the small, coastal territory, which is under a stringent Israeli blockade and has restricted access for visitors via the Egyptian frontier, according to Reuters.

The Qatari leader, who has led Arab efforts to support rebels in Syria and Libya during Arab Spring revolts, had earlier left Doha with a large delegation including his wife Sheikha Moza, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim and other ministers.

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.

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

The visit coincides with a spike in tensions around Gaza, with an Israeli soldier severely wounded in a blast along the border early on Tuesday.

A day earlier, two gunmen were killed and four critically hurt in several air strikes, and another died later in the day in disputed circumstances.

Hamas has vowed not to let the bloodshed go unavenged, while Israel has promised to hit back at anyone targeting soldiers or civilians.

During his brief visit, the emir will inaugurate a $254-million Qatari investment project to rebuild the impoverished and overcrowded Gaza Strip, which sustained major damage during a huge 22-day Israeli military operation which began late December 2008.