Emir of Qatar with Hamas Prime Minister and Qatar's First Lady Shaikha Mozah during their visit to the Islamic University on the sideline of the Emir's landmark tour to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on October 23. Image Credit: AFP

GAZA: The Emir of Qatar’s visit to Gaza on Tuesday was a daring move according to analysts who believe the aim is to rehabilitate Hamas’ image in Western eyes. This could coax it into the peace camp at a time when the Arab Spring revolts, and civil war in Syria, have been reshaping power balances across the Middle East.

The Emir, Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, 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 Gaza Strip is all but cut off from the world under a land and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt that is intended to obstruct the import of arms to Hamas. A Sunni Islamist group like several others supported by Qatar elsewhere, it has long been aided by Shiite Iran and its allies Syria and Hezbollah. In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas’ arch-rival, said it hoped the Qatari visit would not hinder the rebuilding of Palestinian unity, nor endorse a separate Palestinian territory in Gaza.

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’ forces in 2007. Israel had pulled out its troops and colonists from the territory two years earlier.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States was concerned about the “destabilising” 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.”

Ganem Nuseibeh of London-based consultancy Cornerstone Global said: “Qatar now is directly involving itself in the Palestinian issue. It is certainly a bold step that goes beyond what any other country in the region would have done...”

“Qatar is acting as a go-between between the West and Hamas. Though both the West and Hamas prefer not to admit this, both in fact are eager for someone to assume such a role. Only Qatar is able to do so given its regional status, and it’s doing it through economic diplomacy.”

Analysts in Gaza also saw the visit as an attempt by the Emir to use his leverage with Western capitals to help Hamas out of isolation and move them into mainstream politics, using their falling out with Shiite Iran over the conflict in Syria as a stepping stone to break Tehran’s influence on them for good. Among signs of Hamas’ shifting focus was the move of exiled leaders this year from Damascus to the Qatari capital Doha.

The Gaza Strip unquestionably needs the reconstruction aid Qatar is now going to provide. Little has been repaired in Gaza since a devastating three-week offensive by Israeli forces in the winter of 2008-2009 to stop Hamas and other groups firing rockets and mortars at southern Israeli communities.