GAZA Leading Muslim cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi paid a high-profile visit to Gaza on Thursday, giving a boost to the Islamist group Hamas that runs the enclave, but also laying bare Palestinian rivalries.
Qaradawi, chairman of the International Federation of Muslim Clerics, is based in Qatar and has been a vociferous supporter of the revolutions that have shaken the Arab world in the last two years, bringing new governments to Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Soon after arriving in the Gaza Strip, the 87-year-old Egyptian-born cleric called on Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims to work together to bring about the downfall of Israel.
"Our wish should be that we carry out Jihad to death," said Qaradawi, who has gained a large following in the Muslim world thanks to regular appearances on Al Jazeera television.
"We should seek to liberate Palestine, all of Palestine, inch by inch," he said, backing the position of Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist.
Qaradawi was greeted by Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Gaza's Hamas government, which has worked hard to bolster its international standing by inviting senior figures to the tiny territory sandwiched between Israel and Egypt.
"Palestine today welcomes the Sheikh of the Arab Spring, the Sheikh of the revolution and the Sheikh of Jihad in Palestine," Haniyeh said in a welcome speech.
The emir of Qatar made an historic visit to Gaza last year and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has promised to travel to Gaza this month.
Hamas fought a brief civil war against Abbas's Fatah faction in 2007 and swiftly gained full control of Gaza. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who holds sway over parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, argues that foreign visits to Gaza undermine his own position as leader of the Palestinian people.
Mahmoud al-Habbash, the Palestinian minister of religious affairs, based in the West Bank, said Qaradawi's visit would reinforce internal divisions and support the "separatist entity" Hamas had established in Gaza.
Fatah supporters shunned the reception thrown for Qaradawi.
Israel, which has imposed a blockade on Gaza in a stated attempt to prevent weapons reaching Hamas, had no immediate comment on Qaradawi's arrival. He is due to leave Gaza on Saturday.
The cleric gained notoriety in the West when he came out firmly in support of suicide attacks carried out by Palestinian groups against Israeli targets during an intifada, or uprising, that began in 2000 and petered out in 2005.
(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)