GAZA CITY -- Palestinians in the Gaza Strip rolled out the red carpet Tuesday for Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the first foreign head of state to visit the besieged seaside territory since it was taken over by the Islamist militant group Hamas in 2007.
[Updated, 10:55 a.m. Oct. 23: The emir called on Hamas and its rival, the West Bank-based Fatah Party, to reconcile their differences and work together to establish a Palestinian state.
"Palestinians should understand that division does the greatest harm to them and to the cause of all the Arabs," he said during a speech at Islamic University in Gaza.]
The visit came during a period of renewed violence between Gaza militants and Israel.
On Monday, two Palestinian militants were killed by Israeli airstrikes as they attempted to fire rockets into southern Israel, Israeli officials said. An Israeli officer was wounded Tuesday morning by an explosive device planted along the Gaza border.
In preparation for the emir's visit, Hamas deployed hundreds of security guards to protect the him and his delegation, and lined the streets with Qatari flags.
Hamas leaders have been looking increasingly to Qatar for patronage since the unrest in Syria led the militant group to abandon its base in Damascus.
During the visit, the emir said Qatar would increase its previously announced $250-million donation for Gaza to $400 million. The money is to be used for rebuilding projects.
The emir and his delegation entered Gaza through Egypt. Israel tightly controls the movement of goods and people through its border checkpoints with the coastal strip. Israel’s blockade, which it says is necessary to prevent militants in Gaza from rearming, has isolated the territory from most such diplomatic tours.
"This visit broke the political and economic blockade on Gaza," said Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
[Updated, 10:55 a.m. Oct. 23: An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman criticized the emir's visit, saying it would hinder peace efforts.]
Other high-profile figures who have visited in recent years include U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, former President Carter and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
-- Rushdi abu Alouf
Photo: Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, right, and Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh arrive Tuesday for the cornerstone-laying ceremony for Hamad, a new residential neighborhood in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. Credit: Mohammed Salem / Associated Press