JERUSALEM — Hamas militants fired more than 70 rockets into southern Israel on Wednesday, one day after the emir of Qatar became the first head of state to visit Gaza since Hamas seized control there five years ago.
Three Thai workers on an Israeli farm were wounded – two seriously – when a missile struck a chicken coop near the Gaza border, officials said. Israel responded with a series of airstrikes on rocket launchers, killing two Palestinian militants, according to medical officials in Gaza.
Beyond the human toll, however, Israeli officials worried that the visit by Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani had emboldened Hamas and signaled an end to Israel’s ability to isolate the coastal strip. The emir announced that his country would invest $400 million in a construction program for Gaza.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that the visit could send no other message but “clear support for terror and terrorist activity.” A spokesman for his office said Israel was preparing for a sharp escalation in violence.
Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich declined to connect the visit to the rocket attacks, saying it’s “something internal to Gaza so I’ll leave it to them.”
She said, however, that more than 550 rockets have been launched from Gaza at Israel so far this year. “These organizations don’t need special motives to target” Israel, she said.
Israeli officials this week were obviously concerned about the message the emir’s visit would send.
"This is more than strange, especially since Hamas is internationally recognized as a terror group," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "By hugging Hamas publicly, the emir of Qatar has thrown peace under the bus."
The Qatari royal family has long sought a role in the Palestinian territories, where governing is divided between the Fatah movement in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Hamas also has become part of the efforts by Sunni Muslim states such as Qatar to undercut Iranian influence, exemplified by the alliance between Shiite-ruled Iran and Syria, whose president, Bashar Assad, is a member of the Alawite religious sect, an offshoot of Shiism.
Hamas earlier this year abandoned its longtime headquarters in Syria, and Qatar has been providing funding and weapons to Syrian rebels battling to topple Assad.
“We are seeing a regional play for power here and Gaza is a piece of the chessboard,” said one Israeli government official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject. “This is not good for Israel because it raises Hamas’ bargaining power.”
Hannah Allam contributed to this report from Washington.
Sheera Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.