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Last Call in Gaza

GAZA STRIP — The Oslo Bar, named in honor of a failed Middle East peace plan, died in the Gaza Strip earlier this month. Maybe it seems like a waste of time, at best, to mourn the demise of a bar in Gaza, especially one that was open only to United Nations staff, other foreigners, and their guests — in other words, off-limits to most Palestinians. Gaza has bigger problems than the loss of a watering hole for Westerners. On the other hand, the place was an oasis — it was the only bar in Gaza — and a handful of Palestinians did go there to drink, listen to Paul Simon or bad reggae, play backgammon and listen to the bartender tell stories, like how he once met Brooke Shields. Also, the bar did not die peacefully: It was blown up by masked gunmen, three weeks before Palestinians’ first legislative election in 10 years.

Gaza has been getting poorer and more busted-up for years, but the last few months leading up to the election have been especially grim. Deadly feuds between big families have flared up. Petty crime, including home break-ins, is rising. Cliques of gunmen roam around taking over roads or government buildings, or storming the border with Egypt, or kidnapping people. The police are incapable of stopping most of it.

The kidnapping craze emptied out the bar long before the bombing. Almost no foreigners live in Gaza anymore. The U.N. pulled most of its foreign staff out at the end of last summer after two of its employees were kidnapped; other aid organizations have also pulled out staff. More than a dozen foreigners have been kidnapped in Gaza in the last year. No one’s been harmed, just as no one was hurt when the bar blew up — it was closed at the time — but kidnappings and bombings, even relatively benign ones, tend to make people skittish.

Unlike Gaza, the bar was a relaxing place. Until it was obliterated, the bar drew a core group of foreigners, and Palestinians who work for the U.N., several nights a week to drink mostly beer. Women didn’t have to worry about whether their jeans were immodestly tight. Everyone could talk politics a little more freely. Or not talk politics at all. Abu Michel, the bartender, with his thick mustache and hair turning the color of his cigarette ash, would put on Graceland. Again. He’d tell stories, if he was feeling expansive, about the ranch he and a friend used to have in Egypt, near the Israeli border: the rides they’d give tourists on horses and camels; barbecues in the desert, discos at night, and going barefoot for three years straight; a hug from Brooke Shields, and how tall she was. All this was decades ago, before Oslo the bar, or Oslo the peace plan.

GAZA DOESN’T NEED NOSTALGIA at the moment, or a bar. But the destruction of the Oslo Bar in fact bodes ill for all of Gaza, and not just for its closet drinkers. The masked men who blew the place up called themselves, by some accounts, the “corruption reform committee.” Gaza has a disturbing tendency toward exactly this sort of Taliban-ish activity, and that phenomenon is just as much at the heart of the long-term battle for Gaza’s soul as this week’s election.

There is a segment of the population in Gaza that wishes a bar could exist there; the election results will almost certainly reaffirm that Gaza will always be more conservative than some of its residents would like. But elections are one thing, and impromptu vice squads are another. Gaza has no movie theater, not because no one there wants to see movies, but because angry moralists destroyed its only theater. Liquor stores have been attacked by mobs, as have hotels and private homes where liquor is suspected of being sold. Gunmen from Hamas, which, after the election, could very well become part of the government for the first time, shot a young woman dead last spring due to “suspicion of immoral behavior,” after she was spotted sharing a sandwich on the beach with her fiancé.

The only good news, which isn’t that good, is that maybe the bar wasn’t destroyed by a “corruption reform committee.” Maybe that was just a cover story for people who had a shorter-term objective: making the Palestinian Authority look useless right before the election. Then again, the P.A. did not need any help looking useless. No official explanation for the bombing exists, and probably none ever will. So, the destruction of the bar gets added to the pile of confusing violence that’s been growing in Gaza for months, and drinkers, as well as other dissidents, will need to watch their step for the foreseeable future.


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