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."
Najib visited a Gaza university and government offices, as well as the family of top Hamas military chief Ahmed Al-Jaabari, whose assassination by Israel in November started an eight-day war in which more than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis died.
Abbas and his Fatah allies have renounced armed struggle against Israel and favour a negotiated peace but have failed to draw high-level Arab and Muslim leaders to Muslim holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem.
Israel has barred top officials from Non-Aligned Movement states such as Malaysia from entering the occupied West Bank on the grounds that they do not recognise the Jewish state.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a veteran human rights activist and secularist head of state in a government dominated by Islamists, plans to visit Gaza next month.
Najib's visit came as Israel held a parliamentary election expected to deliver victory to hardline right-wing parties skeptical of Palestinian hopes for statehood and dead set against any compromise with Hamas.
"The trends of the Israeli election move from extremist government to a more extremist one and this encourages us as Palestinians and Muslims to build a unified strategy for confronting growing Israeli extremism," said Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer