Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Sunday he had instructed Yisrael Beytenu party activists to buy thousands of copies of the latest issue of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and distribute them to the public, pushing back against feared Muslim anger over the controversial weekly.
The directive by Liberman, the head of Yisrael Beytenu, came as an Israeli bookshop withdrew its plan to sell the magazine, after an Arab MK warned it would stoke Muslim fury.
“Israel cannot become an ISIS state — we will not allow radical Islam to intimidate us, and turn the State of Israel into a state that capitulates to threats and compromises the freedom of expression,” Liberman said in a statement, using an alternate term for Islamic State.
The Steimatzky company announced on Saturday that it had dropped its plans for in-store sale of the magazine, and said it would sell it online instead.
The magazine became a symbol of free speech and anti-terrorism earlier in the month after two Islamist gunmen killed 12 people at its Paris offices to “avenge” the publication of cartoons considered disrespectful to the Prophet Muhammad.
A subsequent issue, featuring another caricature of Muhammad, quickly sold out across France and elsewhere while also sparking massive rallies against the publication in Muslim countries.
Steimatzky said it had not received threats or come under pressure but had changed its plans due to complaints from customers living far from the Tel Aviv area — where the sale was scheduled to take place — who would be unable to buy the magazine in person.
Israeli Arab MK Masud Ganaim (Ra’am-Ta’al) warned Steimatzky and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday that selling the issue could have grave consequences in Israel, where about 20 percent of the population is Arab, mostly Muslim, and religious passions run high.
“This is a very serious, dangerous and stupid step,” Ynet quoted him as saying. “This is not freedom of expression but a blow to the holy of holies of Muslims that will bring about anger among the Muslims and (other) Arabs in the country.”
Liberman denounced Ganaim’s warning in his statement on Sunday as “another red line crossed by the Arab leadership in Israel.”
On Sunday, Ganaim reiterated his opposition the sale of the magazine, and said it was “not a matter of freedom of expression,” but rather a way to put down Muslims.
“If the Prophet Muhammed is belittled, don’t think people will sit back with their arms folded,” he said, according to Ynet.
“Perhaps we need to redefine freedom of expression,” he added. “When Islam is attacked, it’s freedom of expression, when Jews are attacked, it’s anti-Semitism.”
On Saturday, thousands of Palestinians marched in the West Bank in protest over the satirical magazine’s latest cartoon of the Prophet Muhammed.
Answering calls by the Liberation Party, an Islamist group, demonstrators rallied in the cities of Ramallah and Hebron, some carrying banners expressing faith in Islam and others wearing black headbands calling for the establishment of a Muslim caliphate, AFP photographers said.
The latest edition of the magazine — which features a cartoon of the prophet Muhammed on its cover holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, and bearing the caption “All is forgiven” — was sold out within minutes across France upon release two weeks ago, prompting the magazine to increase its print run to 5 million.
The new issue of Charlie Hebdo followed a January 7 massacre by Islamic extremist brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi at the offices of the magazine. Ten Charlie Hebdo employees and two policemen were killed in the attack.
The brothers declared the shooting was revenge for the weekly having published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. They were both later killed in a shootout with police.
The killings, which came just before the slayings of a policewoman and four Jewish shoppers at a kosher grocery in the French capital by another Islamist gunman, drew global condemnation and prompted a unity march in Paris attended by world leaders and some 1.6 million people.
AFP contributed to this report.