Israel Defense Forces attacks in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have boosted the popularity of the Islamist group's leader Ismail Haniyeh among Palestinians in that territory and in the West Bank, according to a poll released Monday.

The survey by the West Bank-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that if new presidential elections were held, Haniyeh would receive 47 percent of the vote compared with 46 percent for President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah faction.

The figures represented a sharp strengthening of Haniyeh's popularity. He served as prime minister in the Hamas-led government Abbas dismissed after Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from Fatah in June.

But the survey also found that Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, imprisoned in Israel and seen as a possible Abbas successor, would defeat Haniyeh by a clear margin. The poll gave him 57 percent of the vote, compared to Haniyeh's 38 percent.

The center's previous poll, in December, gave Gaza-based Haniyeh just 37 percent of a potential presidential vote compared with 56 percent for Abbas, whose peace efforts with Israel are opposed by Hamas.

The latest poll was conducted shortly after Israel ended an offensive in the Gaza Strip in early March that killed more than 120 Palestinians, almost half of them were identified as civilians.

Israel said the operation was aimed at stopping cross-border rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

According to the survey, Hamas's breaching of the Gaza Strip's Rafah border crossing with Egypt in January also contributed to Haniyeh's popularity among Palestinians.

"These developments managed to present Hamas as successful in breaking the siege and as a victim of Israeli attacks," commentary accompanying the poll said.

Lack of progress in Abbas's peace negotiations with Israel also gave Hamas a boost, the poll indicated.

The survey found that if new parliamentary elections were to take place, Hamas would receive 35 percent of the vote and Fatah 42 percent, compared to 46 percent for Fatah and 34 percent for Hamas in an opinion poll in January.

The current survey polled 1,270 Palestinians in Arab East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It had a margin of error of three percentage points.

Hamas and Fatah far apart ahead of Yemeni mediation bid

Meanwhile, delegations from rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah will travel to Yemen this week to discuss reconcilation, but the groups' leaders will not attend the talks, officials said on Monday.

The groups will meet separately with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but the absence of Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Meshal and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah casts doubt on any success in ending hostilities between the factions.

Hamas Islamists routed Fatah forces to seize control of the Gaza Strip in June. After the takeover, Abbas dismisssd a Hamas-led government and appointed a new Western-backed cabinet in the occupied West Bank.

Officials loyal to Abbas said the Yemeni initiative calls on Hamas to hand over control of Gaza and agree to early presidential and parliamentary elections, conditions endorsed by Abbas but rejected by Hamas.

Meshal was initially expected to lead the Islamist group's delegation, but a Hamas spokesman said the Damascus-based leader's deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouq, would be sent instead.

The spokesman gave no reason for the change.

Senior Abbas aide Azzam al-Ahmed will head the Fatah team.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Hamas would only be willing to discuss reconciliation with Fatah in a "non-conditional dialogue".

"We will respect any agreements that would result from that non-conditional and open meeting, if it takes place," Barhoum said.