Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh walks with the Emir of Qatar Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani during welcoming ceremony at Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip, Tuesday (Photo: Reuters)
Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani crossed into the Gaza Strip on Tuesday in the first visit by a head of state since the Islamist Hamas movement took over in 2007.
Live images broadcast on Al-Jazeera satellite television showed the Qatari leader embracing Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya after crossing into the Palestinian enclave from the Egyptian Sinai.
After Palestinian and Qatari national anthems were played, the emir walked down a red carpet shaking hands with top Hamas officials.
Earlier the emir, who is travelling with his wife Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, landed at El-Arish airport in the Egyptian Sinai and was flown by helicopter to the Rafah crossing.
He entered Gaza at the head of a delegation which also includes Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani.
They were greeted by Haniya and his cabinet, as well as by Salah al-Aruri, a senior member of the Islamist movement's exiled leadership.
The visit marks the second to the tiny coastal territory by Sheikh Hamad.
The last time he visited Gaza was in 1999 when he was welcomed by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Gaza's international airport in Rafah, which was destroyed by Israeli raids several years later during the second intifada, or uprising (2000-2005).
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 militants 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.