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The Emir of Qatar visited the Gaza Strip today. He's the first world leader to do so since 2007, when the Islamist movement Hamas seized control of the Palestinian territory and Israel responded with a blockade. The emir called on Hamas to reconcile with the rival Fatah movement. He also promised some $400 million in reconstruction projects, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Gaza.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The day began ominously for the visit with a Palestinian roadside bomb gravely wounding an Israeli soldier near the border fence. But Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani arrived in the north Sinai town of El Arish as scheduled and was soon whisked into Gaza via the Rafah crossing, the only one not under Israeli control.
Speaking under a tent in southern Gaza where a Jewish settlement once stood, Gaza's Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, heaped praise on the emir for, in his words, breaking Israel's blockade on Gaza.
ISMAIL HANIYEH: (Through translator) We are today smashing the wall of the siege through this blessed visit of yours. Today, we are saying: Thank you, Your Highness. Thank you, Qatar.
KENYON: The emir came loaded with pledges to help rebuild Gaza, including an entirely new town called Hamad City with 1,000 housing units, schools, clinics and more. New roads, a hospital specializing in prosthetic limbs and agricultural aid were also promised.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
KENYON: As the emir's delegation motored along Gaza's streets, people cheered and carried posters bearing his picture. They were well aware that Sheikh Hamad is the first Arab leader to visit Gaza since Jordan's King Abdullah came in 1999. One man, Mustafa Zeinati(ph), said the emir had brought to Gazans something he thought might never come: hope.
MUSTAFA ZEINATI: (Foreign language spoken)
KENYON: We hope he's an example that will bring other Arab leaders here, he said. They all need to see the desperate people here.
ZEINATI: (Foreign language spoken)
KENYON: Gazans were also aware that this visit would not have been possible without Egypt. After years of disappointment at the hands of former leader Hosni Mubarak, Palestinians say perhaps Egypt's new president, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, who sent his education minister along with the Qatari delegation, is serious about changing Egypt's approach to the Rafah border crossing.
The visit did have its critics. An Israeli spokesman said Qatar had thrown peace under the bus by making the visit. The Palestinian Fatah movement, which runs the West Bank, did not publicly complain about the emir's embrace of Hamas in Gaza, but the visit was seen as a blow to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, despite the emir's call for reconciliation.
In fact, Gazans themselves were not all riveted by the visit. A big event at a stadium bedecked with Qatari flags had to be canceled, officially because of a scheduling conflict, but some pointed to the less than half-full stadium as another likely cause.
Sitting outside his near-empty shop in Gaza City, owner Naji Douema(ph) said he does hope today's pledges become real jobs for Gazans soon. But he said his own view of the future was dimmed by last night's U.S. presidential debate. He said listening to President Obama and Mitt Romney compete to promise more military support to Israel left him depressed and angry.
NAJI DOUEMA: (Through translator) Don't use us to win your campaigns. Don't climb to the top on the skulls of Palestinian children.
KENYON: Some in Israel have been actively debating the need for another military operation in Gaza to quell rockets and mortars launched at Israeli towns. After today's Palestinian bombing critically wounded an Israeli soldier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to strike back, quote, "very, very hard." Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.