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Hamas popularity surges as Palestinian rivalry flares

RAMALLAH West Bank (Reuters) - Militant group Hamas would sweep Palestinian elections if they were held today after its support soared during seven weeks of war with Israel in Gaza, an opinion poll published on Tuesday found.

The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research said the poll showed Islamists clearly leading presidential and parliamentary polls for the first time since Palestinans last voted eight years ago, when Hamas won power in Gaza.

Most Palestinians surveyed said they preferred Hamas's strategy of armed struggle against Israel rather than peace negotiations, which are favored by Fatah, once the dominant Palestinian political movement and one backed by the West.

The views, collected among over 1,000 Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, show an unprecedented popular shift towards Hamas as tensions with Fatah boil.

Hamas's former premier Ismail Haniyeh would win 61 percent of votes in a two-way race against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, with the Fatah chief taking just 32 percent of the vote, the survey found.

More than half (53 percent) of respondents said an armed approach would help gain a Palestinian state, as opposed to 20 percent who said they supported non-violent means.

Fatah, a largely secular party that governs from Ramallah in the West Bank, accused Hamas on Saturday of putting hundreds of its supporters in Gaza under house arrest during the war and shooting at those who tried to flee Israeli bombings.

The two parties fought street battles in Gaza in 2007, a year after Hamas won parliamentary polls. The fighting left hundreds dead and hardened animosity between the parties.

There have been no national elections since the split and there are no plans for any despite steps taken in April to forge a unity government, including a consensus on policies.

Ensconced in Gaza, Hamas has waged three wars against Israel while Fatah has pursued on-off talks, mediated by the United States, which have so far failed to secure an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Hamas's charter does not recognize Israel and seeks a state in the whole of ancient Palestine, including Israel.

Suspicion between Fatah and Hamas grew earlier this month after Israel's internal security service said it foiled a Hamas plot to launch a coup in the West Bank. Abbas has called for an investigation, while Hamas denies any plot.

A rare rally by thousands of Hamas supporters in Ramallah on Saturday passed without incident under the watchful eyes of plain-clothes Fatah forces, although the Islamists complained that several of its backers were arrested afterwards.

(Reporting by Noah Browning; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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