Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most influential Islamic scholars, arrived in the Gaza Strip late on Wednesday at the head of a delegation of 50 senior Islamic figures from 14 countries.

The 86-year-old Qaradawi is expected to meet with Hamas leaders and representatives of other Palestinian factions.

His visit is seen as a symbolic victory for Hamas, whose leaders consider the controversial Egyptian- born Qaradawi the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qaradawi’s visit to the Gaza Strip is expected to last 48 hours hours, during which he will attend a Hamas-sponsored rally on Thursday.

Qaradawi, who has in the past come out in support of suicide bombings against Israel, is expected to deliver a sermon during Friday prayers at the Omari Mosque in Gaza City.

The Islamic scholars accompanying him are from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Australia and Britain.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri welcomed Qaradawi’s visit as “historic” and hailed his positions in support of the Palestinians.

Abu Zuhri dismissed the Palestinian Authority’s opposition to the visit. “Receiving scholars and allies of the Palestinian resistance is better than meeting with leaders of the occupation and the enemies of the Palestinian people in Ramallah,” he said.

The PA leadership has come out against Qaradawi’s visit to the Gaza Strip, saying it would harm Palestinian interests and deepen the split between Hamas and Fatah.

“We do not welcome this visit,” said Mahmoud Habbash, the PA minister for Wakf affairs.

“This is a visit that carries political dimensions and is intended to recognize as legitimate Hamas’s rule in the Gaza Strip.”

Habbash said the visit would also help Hamas move foreword with its plan to create a separate Palestinian entity in the Strip.

Referring to Qaradawi’s recent fatwa forbidding Muslims to visit Jerusalem while it is under Israeli control, the PA minister remarked: “Qaradawi is now entering the Gaza Strip with Israeli permission. He should revoke his bad fatwa which violates all religious teachings.”

Mahmoud Aloul, a top Fatah official in the West Bank, condemned Qaradawi’s visit as “suspicious.”

He said that the senior scholar was himself a suspicious man because of his fatwas, including ones that permitted the US and NATO to intervene in the internal affairs of the Arab world.

Aloul said that Qaradawi’s fatwas have caused sedition and conflicts in the Arab world and among Muslims and led to the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Syria, Libya and the Palestinian territories.

The Fatah-affiliated Palestinian Journalists Syndicate in the West Bank called on its members to boycott Qaradawi’s visit and to refrain from covering his activities in the Gaza Strip.

Several Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip, including Fatah and the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Leninist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, also said they would boycott Qaradawi and his delegation.

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