updated 3/5/2004 8:58:04 AM ET 2004-03-05T13:58:04

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s credibility dropped to the lowest level in three years and a majority of Israelis want him to resign, according to a poll published Friday, as troops sealed the West Bank and Gaza Strip amid new warnings of attacks by Palestinian militants.

The closure was imposed for the duration of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which ends Monday. Such closures, routine during holidays, idle thousands of Palestinian laborers with jobs in Israel.

In central Israel, police put up roadblocks Friday. On one highway, officers searched each car amid the heightened warnings of attacks.

The militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups have threatened revenge attacks for two Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip in the past week that killed six activists from the groups. On Friday, a homemade rocket fired from Gaza hit a parking lot outside a supermarket in the Israeli border town of Sderot. The rocket damaged several nearby stores, but caused no injuries.

No withdrawal
In other developments, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided not to withdraw troops from the Gaza Strip before U.S. presidential elections in November and will brief American officials on his position during a trip to Washington next week, a security official said on condition of anonymity.

Israel has said it would withdraw from much of Gaza and parts of the West Bank if peace talks with the Palestinians remain frozen in coming months. The United States has not rejected the plan outright, but has expressed reservations about unilateral actions.

The U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan calls for a negotiated agreement.

Earlier this week, Dov Weisglass, a senior Sharon aide, discussed the proposed withdrawal with top U.S. officials. The Maariv daily newspaper said Friday that Weisglass was told the Bush administration would not like to see a withdrawal before the presidential election because of concerns of growing instability in Gaza.

However, Sharon adviser Assaf Shariv said Friday that no dates for a possible withdrawal were raised during the meetings with U.S. officials.

Friday’s poll in the Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper indicated that Sharon’s approval rating is at its lowest since he became prime minister in early 2001, apparently reflecting the growing number of scandals to which he has been linked.

Favoritism?
Earlier this week, Maariv suggested that favoritism played a role in Sharon’s handling of a prisoner swap between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

The paper said an old business partner of Sharon was the former father-in-law of Hezbollah captive Elhanan Tannenbaum, a confessed drug dealer and indebted gambler released in the contentious deal. Sharon said he had not spoken to the business partner for decades, and he did not know of the man’s ties to Tannenbaum.

In the Dahaf poll in Yediot, 57 percent of 501 respondents said Sharon was not a trustworthy prime minister, up from 51 percent in February. At the beginning of Sharon’s first term in 2001, slightly more than 20 percent of respondents said he was not to be trusted.

For the first time, a majority of respondents — 53 percent — also said Sharon should resign as prime minister. In a February poll, 46 percent said Sharon should resign.

The survey in Yediot had an error margin of 4.5 percentage points.

Also Friday, police arrested a second suspect in nine bombing attacks on Arabs in the Israeli port city of Haifa during the past three years. One bomb exploded under the car of an Israeli Arab lawmaker and another damaged a mosque.

Three people were slightly wounded in the attacks, including a small boy who found one of the bombs, police said.

The initial suspect, identified Thursday, was Eliran Golan, 22, a self-proclaimed Jewish extremist. Overnight, police arrested a second man, a resident from the port city of Ashdod.

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