GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Influential Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi arrived for his first visit to Gaza as a top cleric Wednesday, making one of the most high-profile visits to the Palestinian territory since the Islamic group Hamas seized control in 2007.
Al-Qaradawi is a prominent scholar and Qatar-based cleric who is widely respected in the Muslim world, and his visit emboldens Hamas. Visits by leading figures have been rare in Hamas-run Gaza, and al-Qaradawi’s trip is expected to help break the diplomatic isolation that Gaza has been under through years of blockades enforced by Israel and Egypt.
The emir of the Gulf state Qatar visited last year, and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced his intention to visit later this month, despite a U.S. plea that he delay the trip so as not to harm efforts to broker a reconciliation between Turkey and Israel.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh kissed al-Qaradawi’s right hand upon his arrival, calling him “the grand imam of modern Islam and the grand imam of the Arab spring.” Hundreds of Hamas supporters waved to his passing convoy.
“It is a great moment for me to meet with you, the people of Palestine, and all the components of Gaza society,” al-Qaradawi said in a speech at a welcoming ceremony. But he also acknowledged that he was being hosted by just one part of what is a divided Palestinian society, saying that he hoped to meet with “all Palestinians” on his next visit.
On, Thursday he was scheduled to talk with Haniyeh and Hamas cabinet ministers, attend a demonstration for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, visit the home of Hamas cleric Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated in a 2004 Israeli airstrike, and address a public rally.
The rival Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank was angered by the visit, claiming it served to strengthen the Palestinians’ bitter political division.
“Any visit that carries a political significance, that acknowledges the legitimacy of Hamas in Gaza, is considered harmful and against the interest of the Palestinian people,” said Mahmoud Al Habash, minister of religious affairs in the West Bank.
There were mixed reactions to the cleric’s visit in Gaza.
Palestinian faction leaders affiliated with the West Bank Palestinian leaders’ secular Fatah party as well as heads of civil society groups refused to participate in al-Qaradawi’s welcome reception. Among other things, they objected to what they said was the cleric’s support of U.S. involvement in the Libyan uprising and the Syrian civil war.
“After he was rejected in most Arab countries for blessing the U.S. intervention in Libya and Syria … it seems that this man is coming to Gaza to clean his record and seek indulgences,” Gaza political analyst Ibrahim Abrash wrote on his blog.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.