Ismail Haniyeh
Ismail Haniyeh Israel news photo: Flash 90

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh departed Gaza on Sunday to begin his diplomatic tour of Egypt, Sudan, Qatar, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Turkey.

The trip marks the first time Haniyeh has left Gaza since Hamas seized the coastal enclave from the PLO in a violent putsch in June of 2007.

Haniyeh deputy Mohammad Awad said the goal was to drum up funds for development in projects in Gaza, Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem.

"We hope that with this visit we can turn a new page in Palestinian-Arab relations," Awad said before Haniyeh entered Egypt through Gaza's Rafah crossing.

Haniyeh plans to be abroad for at least two weeks and possibly more if he receives invitations from other Muslim countries, Awad said. Haniyeh's departure was confirmed by border official Maher Abu Sabha.

Haniyeh had until today been confined to Gaza due to tensions with Egypt and fighting with Israel - who Hamas leaders feared would target Haniyeh for assassination.

But Egypt's new rulers have warmed up to Hamas since longtime president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February and the success of Islamic parties in Arab polls has led Hamas to feel it has room to breathe.

Last week Haniyeh's colleague Khaled Mashaal met with PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas and announced Hamas and its terror confederates would be inducted into the PLO. Mashaal also declared Hamas would be downgrading to 'popular resistance,' but maintained the Islamic movement - at a time of its choosing - could return to 'armed resistance.'

Both Hamas and the PLO maintain armed resistance is the only path to a Palestinian state - which they say is indivisible and leaves no room for Israel.

Hamas' new pragmatism is largely seen by observers as a temporary populist marketing ploy ahead of PA elections to be held next year.

Nor, analysts say, will many Arab nations where Islamists have surged in the polls be able to show open support for Hamas.

Tunisia and Egypt, whose economies are in dire straits, have been promised billions in aid dollars from the United States – which regards Hamas as a terror organization.

Many other Arab nations Hamas plans to visit are also dependent on US aid.