Masked gunmen stormed into a club for UN workers in Gaza City yesterday and blew up the drinking hall in the latest sign of spiraling unrest ahead of a Palestinian election.
It was the first such attack in Gaza on a UN target and came against a backdrop of growing unease. On Friday, a group freed three British hostages that had been seized to demand foreign pressure on Israel. Yesterday, an Italian peace activist was abducted, but was reported to have been released a short while later.
The bombing was another big blow for President Mahmoud Abbas, just hours after he had vowed to impose order ahead of a Jan. 25 election and as militants announced the expiry of a de facto truce with Israel that they had followed at his behest.
Gunmen burst into the UN club, the only place that alcohol is served openly in conservative Muslim Gaza.
The club had been closed for the day. The attackers tied up the security guard and struck him with gun butts.
Then they set explosives in front of the bar, unrolled a detonator cable and blew up the charges, ripping up the roof and shattering the windows.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
The UN is generally viewed with sympathy in Gaza. Its agency supporting Palestinian refugees and their descendants, more than half of Gaza's 1.4 million population, is the second biggest employer after the Palestinian Authority.
"The club has been there for 50 years," one UN security worker said. "This is the first time anything like this has happened."
Non-essential UN staff had already left Gaza because of the danger of kidnappings and a rash of violent protests and internal clashes.
Meanwhile, an Italian peace activist became the fourth European to be kidnapped in less than a week in the Gaza Strip yesterday after being abducted at gunpoint in the south of the territory. There were conflicting reports of his release.
The male activist had been part of a group of around 20 Italians on a mission designed to show solidarity with the Palestinian people, security sources said.
But shortly arriving in the city of Khan Yunis, he found himself being bundled into a vehicle by masked by gunmen who promptly sped him away to an unknown destination.
"He has been freed," Luisa Morgantini, a European member of parliament and one of the leaders of the delegation, said by telephone from the Gaza Strip.
Morgantini, who declined to give the Italian's identity, said she learned of his release through indirect contacts with the kidnappers.
Palestinian security forces, however, said they were still searching for the hostage.
The delegation had been due to hold talks with finance ministry officials when the activist was kidnapped.