PARIS --An international dispute over a European newspaper cartoon deemed blasphemous by some Muslims gained momentum yesterday as gunmen threatened the European Union offices in the Gaza Strip, and more European papers pointedly published the drawings as an affirmation of their freedom of speech.
A newly elected legislator from Hamas, the radical Islamic group that swept the Palestinian elections last week, said large rallies were planned in Gaza in the next few days to protest the cartoons, which depict the Prophet Muhammad.
"We are angry - very, very, very angry," said Jamila Al Shanty, one of six women elected to represent Hamas in the Palestinian parliament. "No one can say a bad word about our prophet."
The cartoons - which include a drawing of the prophet who founded Islam wearing a turban shaped like a bomb - first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September and have since been reprinted in France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Norway. The BBC televised them yesterday.
France-Soir, the only French daily to reprint the cartoons, fired its managing editor on Wednesday as "a strong sign of respect for the beliefs and intimate convictions of every individual," according to a statement from its owner, Raymond Lakah, an Egyptian-born French businessman.
Nevertheless, the newspaper defended its right to print the cartoons. The incident is causing diplomatic strains and threats to citizens of countries where the cartoons have been printed.
Saudi Arabia and Syria have recalled their ambassadors to Denmark, and the Danish government has summoned foreign envoys in Copenhagen to talks today over the issue, having already explained that it does not control the press.
The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told the Copenhagen daily Politiken, "We are talking about an issue with fundamental significance to how democracies work."
Many European commentators concede that the cartoons were provocative and insensitive, but argue that the conservative Muslim world must learn to accept Western standards of free speech and pluralism.
Many Muslims complain that the cartoons reinforce a dangerous confusion between Islam and the Islamist terrorism that the vast majority of Muslims abhor. Dalil Boubakeur, head of France's Muslim Council, called the cartoons a new sign of Europe's growing "Islamophobia."
The conflict is the latest manifestation of growing tension between Europe and the Muslim world. The tension has been exacerbated by racial and religious discrimination against Muslim immigrants and their children in Europe's weakest economies.
The trouble began in September when Denmark's Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons lampooning Islam's intolerance and its links to terrorism.
The cartoons were published again by a Norwegian magazine last month and the issue erupted internationally this month after diplomatic efforts failed to assuage demands by several angry Arab countries that the publications be punished.
Jyllands-Posten has received two bomb threats in the past few days, though it earlier apologized for any hurt feelings the drawings may have caused.
France-Soir was the first French periodical to publish the cartoons, printing on its front page the headline, "Yes, we have the right to caricature God," above a cartoon that depicted religious figures representing Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity sitting on a cloud.
In the cartoon, the Christian figure is telling the Muslim one, "Stop complaining, Mohammed, we were ALL caricatured here."
Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, issued a statement condemning "in the strongest terms" France-Soir's publication of the cartoons. "Any insult to the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) is an insult to more than 1 billion Muslims, and an act like this must never be allowed to be repeated," his statement read.
France's foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, said on Wednesday that press freedom should be exercised "in a spirit of tolerance.
Yesterday, the country's embassy in its former colony Algeria issued a statement condemning the publication, saying that the French government is "deeply attached to the spirit of tolerance and to respect of religious belief as we are to the principle of freedom of the press."
"In this light, France condemns all those who hurt individuals in their beliefs or religious convictions," the statement read.
In Gaza, the cartoons have injected another element of uncertainty into the already tense atmosphere. About a dozen gunmen from two armed groups appeared at the European Union office, firing automatic weapons and spray painting a warning on the outside gate: "Closed until an apology is sent to Muslims."
The men distributed a pamphlet warning Denmark, Norway and France that they had 48 hours to apologize.
Later, two armed, masked men from one of the groups held a press conference on a sidewalk in Gaza warning of consequences if the nations did not apologize.
"It will be a suitable reaction, and it won't be predictable," said one of the men, Abu Hafss, identified as a commander of the Al Quds Brigade, an armed offshoot of the radical group, Islamic Jihad. The other group is the Al Yasir Brigades, connected to the Fatah party.
Another armed group connected to Fatah, the Abu el-Reesh Brigades, said that Norway, Denmark, France and Germany must apologize within 10 hours or their citizens here would be "in danger."