By Michael Widlanski 29 March 2005

Official Palestinian media said today that Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the HAMAS and Islamic Jihad organizations have agreed in principle to full unification, with all sides recognizing the PLO’s “Strategy of Stages,” a document that sets out a phased program for Israel’s destruction.

“Representatives of the HAMAS movement and Islamic Jihad will formally attend a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization today, and the two movements [HAMAS and Jihad] have agreed in principle to join the PLO [Arabic: al-munadhama],” declared the opening headlines on Voice of Palestine radio.

The dramatic announcement of PLO-HAMAS-Jihad unification comes amid the flow of sophisticated weapons to PLO and Islamic agents, and it represents both a major success for Abbas along with a serious potential threat for Israel for several reasons:

*–For Abbas, who succeeded Yasser Arafat as the leader of both the PLO and the PA, it is a major Palestinian domestic success, perhaps beginning to take him out of Arafat’s shadow;

*–For Israel, it is worrisome that the Islamic extremists, who have continued to amass weapons and stage intermittent terror attacks, are now officially part of the Palestinian establishment;

*–And perhaps most problematic is the re-statement by both the PLO and HAMAS that they are bound to the PLO’s 1974 action-plan entitled the “Strategy of Stages” (Arabic: barnamaj al-marahil) which seeks Israel’s destruction through a combination of diplomacy and violence.

The announcement of unification was featured in detail on all the morning news shows of Voice of Palestine radio (Sawt Felasteen) from Ramallah and on Palestinian television from Gaza, showing lengthy shots of Abbas meeting with the HAMAS leadership, while demonstrably fingering Islamic prayer beads (Arabic: sibha or masbah) in his left hand.

HAMAS officials declined to give detailed responses to questions about whether the unification meant a change in HAMAS’s ideology or its official covenant (Arabic: mithaq), but it appeared that neither HAMAS nor Jihad-nor even the PLO-was willing to offer an official renunciation of the use of violence against Israel.

Instead, both PLO and HAMAS officials have, in recent days, confirmed that they have accepted the strategy of “staged goals” (Arabic: ahdaf marhalliyya) as it appears in “Strategy of Stages” set forth at a PLO conference in 1974.

“The goals of the present stage are that by the end of 2005 our people will arrive at the borders of September 2000 [when Arafat launched the present war know as the “Aqsa Intifada”],” asserted Palestinian leader Abbas in an interview with Egyptian news agency two weeks ago.

When asked specifically about the Bush Administration’s demand for disarming Palestinian terrorists, he said, “I will not embark on an operation that will lead to a civil war.”

The Abbas interview was featured on the front page of his own Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda newspaper, run by his Fatah organization, on March 15 and March 17. Fatah is the largest constituent member of the PLO, and it includes the Tanzeem militia and the “Aqsa Martyrs Brigades” suicide bombers.

In recent weeks, Palestinian leader Abbas has steadfastly refused to condemn HAMAS or Jihad by name for recent acts of terror, including the bombing of a Tel Aviv nightclub on Feb. 25, saying only that such acts “gave Israel excuses” not to meet Palestinian demands and were, therefore, “against Palestinian interests.”

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said in a cabinet meeting this Sunday that PLO and Islamic agents had successfully smuggled sophisticated Soviet-made SAM-7 “Strella” anti-aircraft missiles into Palestinian-ruled areas.

Such missiles could shoot down Israeli civilian planes, and they are also the reason that Israel has cut back on the use of military helicopters.

Official Palestinian spokesmen today denied the Israeli comments (which have been made very quietly), asserting that there were no missiles in Gaza. Meanwhile, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Ariqat [sometimes spelled Erikat] made fun of the Israeli comments in a radio interview yesterday.

“That’s what the Israelis say,” asserted Ariqat, the PA Negoitions Minister, referring to the Israeli allegations.

“They have the whole West Bank under lock and key. There are road blocks everywhere and they’re saying there are missiles in the West Bank,” he declared laughingly.

“It’s all part of an Israeli strategy to delay carrying out their commitments,” he said.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces yesterday arrested several members of a joint Islamic Jihad-Fatah terror cell in the northern West Bank town of Jenin which was preparing explosives and motorized projectiles for the production of a new generation of “Qassam” rocket-the kind only used until now in the Gaza Strip.

Several members of the cell were among the 500 Palestinian convicts whose release PLO leader Abbas had recently won in talks with Israel.