Forty years ago, I entered the Gaza Strip — soon after Israel had conquered that teeming caldron of humanity after defeating Egypt in the Six-Day War — to report on the Israelis’ bubbling optimism about their young nation’s future. “Come back in 10 years and you won’t recognize the place,” an Israeli general told me, spelling out visions of economic development and a grateful Arab population. Similar predictions were made for the West Bank, which had been administered by Jordan in a somewhat more humane yet still quite oppressive manner.

The optimism of the Israeli occupiers did not seem so far-fetched then, given the hardships the Palestinians had endured under their fellow Arab protectors and throughout the diaspora. The experience of the Palestinians was not unlike that of the Jews: They were needed but scorned for their talents. Both refugee groups were scarred by grinding oppression and each nurtured a thirst for nationhood fortified by a tribally based religiosity that secular leaders often found useful.

That is the story of Hamas, a creation of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and political organization that flourished after Israel humbled Gamal Abdel Nasser, the last great Arab nationalist leader, with its devastating victory over Egypt. The Palestinian movement was then led by puppets of Nasser and was secular in focus. It remained so, after being invigorated by the late Yasser Arafat, who gave the Palestinians their first serious and independent political identification. But as Arafat wasted his credibility in futile jockeying with Israel (mostly while in exile), corruption came to dominate his movement.

By contrast, the religious zealots who later formed the Hamas organization were more focused on spiritual probity and tended far more closely to the needs of their impoverished brethren in Gaza and the West Bank. As with Hezbollah in Lebanon — and that other Iranian-backed Islamist movement, the Shiites who now control Iraq — the religious movements, both Shiite- and Sunni-based, cornered the market on purity of purpose as opposed to rank opportunism. That is precisely why these fiercely anti-Western movements have been able to turn the favorite fig leaf of U.S. neocolonialism, the slogans of democracy and elections, against the United States by winning popular elections.

While the American mass media tend to join the Bush administration in ignoring this unpleasant contradiction, the fact is that the people we brand as the enemy can make a strong claim to having won the election that our President Bush champions. What irony that the United States and the European Union, both of which cut off aid to the Palestinian government in 2006 when Hamas won the election, have now resumed aid to the PLO-dominated government that lost power through the vote.

This contradiction applies even more uncomfortably to Israel, which consistently demeaned the Palestinian movement when it was run by secularists. Israel only very reluctantly, and in the most limited of ways, was willing to risk the false security of occupied land for the possibility of peace. Israeli leaders of all parties drew the line at granting the Palestinians a real state with contiguous land and a significant presence in Jerusalem as it existed before the Six-Day War. Rarely mentioned is that some elements in the Israeli government initially supported the rise of Hamas as a desired alternative to the PLO and came too late to the recognition that Arafat, for all of his very serious failings, was their best alternative.

Now it is also too late for the remnants of the PLO to once again unilaterally assert a claim to lead the Palestinians. Sure, the United States, Israel and the EU can throw aid and tax dollars their way, but if the price is that the PLO assist in crushing Hamas, or even sit idly by while Israeli troops reoccupy Gaza, there will be chaos. The only hope is for the funders, including Israel (which has withheld the tax monies paid by the Palestinians from them), to recognize that the Palestinian people need to make their own history. At this point, that must include Hamas, which it is hoped will be moved, as was the PLO, to accept Israel’s right to exist within borders that permit a viable Palestinian state.

That lesson of empowerment must also be applied throughout the region, from Lebanon to Iraq and Iran, where election results subvert the ambitions of the foreigners. Elections are great if they give the conquerors the results they want, but it is in the nature of things that people will not use the ballot to legitimize their oppression for long. The democracy project, ballyhooed by President Bush, founders on its failure to allow the will of the voters to be heard when they dare vote against U.S. policy.

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