Malaysian leader visits Gaza in boost to Hamas

Tue Jan 22, 2013 9:26am EST
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By Saleh Salem

GAZA (Reuters) - Malaysia's prime minister defied Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip to visit the Palestinian enclave on Tuesday, part of a diplomatic push by Gaza's Islamist rulers that is irritating their secular rivals in the West Bank.

Premier Najib Razak, along with a group of Malaysian ministers, crossed into Gaza via its land border with Egypt for what he described as a humanitarian visit.

"We believe in the struggle of the Palestinian people. They have been suppressed and oppressed for so long," Najib told reporters as he was greeted by officials from Gaza's Hamas government.

He was the second world leader in recent months to defy the five-year blockade and accept an invitation from Hamas, which Western states regard as a terrorist group.

Qatar's emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, made a brief visit to Gaza in October and promised $400 million in aid for infrastructure. He too entered via Egypt, whose new Islamist leaders have historic ties with Hamas.

The high-level visits under the nose of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement in the West Bank underscore bitter divisions between the rival Palestinian movements despite efforts by Egypt to forge a reconciliation.

Najib's visit drew a stern rebuke from Abbas, who has not set foot in Gaza since his forces fought and lost a civil war against Hamas there in 2007.

"The Palestinian presidency rejects and denounces the visit ... and believes it undermines the representation of the Palestinian people," his office said in a statement. "It enhances division and does not serve Palestinian interests."   Continued...

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (L) hugs senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh during a cornerstone placing ceremony in Gaza City January 22, 2013. REUTERS/Ali Ali/Pool