RAMALLAH - According to a recent poll of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre, residents of the Palestinian Authority have faith in the new Hamas government. The survey was carried out two days before the attack in Kerem Shalom.

Forty-five percent of respondents approve of the changes the Hamas government made. For example, 50.2 percent rate the government's performance with regard to education as "good," and only 14.1 percent rate it "not good." On health, these figures were 35 and 25 percent, respectively.

There was no change in either the education or health systems, said JMCC director Dr. Ghassan Khatib, a former PA minister. "But the public perceives the present government as having improved the situation, with the exception of domestic security."

The poll did find a decline in the popularity of Hamas as a political party. In February, 41.4 percent of respondents said they would vote for Hamas in the parliamentary election, while in June only 30.8 percent said they would vote for them if the election were to be held today. The percentage of respondents who said they would vote for Fatah increased slightly, from 31 percent in February to 33.2 percent in June. Trust in Hamas dropped from 38.7 in February to 28.9 in this poll.

"We are getting closer to the political model of the United States and Great Britain," Khatib said, "of two main parties, while the smaller parties continue to weaken."

According to Khatib, the Kerem Shalom incident greatly increased the popularity of Hamas among Palestinians. "And if Palestinian prisoners were to be released in exchange for the Israeli prisoner, its popularity would soar. If no prisoners are received in exchange, its popularity would be severely damaged."

Less support for two-state solution The survey showed a decline in support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to 52.4 percent. Support for suicide attacks also declined slightly, from 49.7 percent in February to 44.8 percent in June.

One surprising finding of the poll is that Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was voted the most trustworthy Palestinian leader by 18.2 percent of respondents, followed by 13 percent for PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and 5.6 percent for Marwan Barghouti.

"The most notable fact regarding this question is the leadership crisis perceived by Palestinians," Khatib said, with "27 percent saying they didn't believe in any leader."

Overall, however, the most interesting survey finding is the growing gap between residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with the latter expressing more support for Hamas and Haniyeh than the former.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Legislative Council held its first session since Israel arrested 20 legislators from the West Bank last week. Many of the seats remained empty, out of fear of further Israeli arrests. About 100 children demonstrated to express solidarity with the captive lawmakers.