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(photo credit: AP)
Hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank on Saturday, with several dozens storming European buildings and burning German and Danish flags, to protest cartoons deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.
A leader of the Islamic militant group that recently won Palestinian elections told an Italian newspaper that those involved in the cartoons should be put to death. And 6,000 protesters turned out in Nazareth for the first demonstration against the caricatures on Israeli soil.
The cartoons have caused a furor across the Muslim world, in part because Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depictions of Islam's holiest figure. Aggravating the affront was one caricature of Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse.
The cartoons were first published in Denmark, and then in newspapers elsewhere in Europe in a show of solidarity with press freedoms.
Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar told the Italian daily il Giornale on Saturday that the cartoons were an offense that should be punished by death.
"We should have killed all those who offend the Prophet and instead here we are, protesting peacefully," Zahar said.
In Gaza City, demonstrations weren't all peaceful.
About two dozen protesters stormed the German government cultural center there, smashing windows, breaking doors and burning the German flag. Down the street, about 30 Palestinians threw stones at the European Commission building, and replaced the EU flag with a Palestinian flag, before police brought them under control.
About 50 schoolchildren and teenagers gathered at one corner of the street shortly after to try to resume the attacks on the two buildings, but Palestinian riot police, armed with batons, pushed them back. The youths threw stones at the police, then fled.
Later in the day, about 400 protesters marched to the European Commission building, accompanied by a loudspeaker car that blared, "Insulting the prophet means insulting every Muslim," and urged merchants to boycott Danish products. Protesters also set fire to a Danish flag.
Police set up a cordon at the building to prevent stone-throwing, but protesters heeded organizers' appeals and didn't attack the building. Most of the demonstrators were merchants who called for a boycott of European goods, and many carried small books of the Kuran, the Islamic holy book.
Masked Palestinian police under police guard repainted the wall outside the commission building to erase graffiti demanding a boycott.
A spokesman for the German consulate in Ramallah, Alexander Eberl, said the Gaza office would be closed until further notice. And in Brussels, the European Union called on the Palestinian Authority to protect EU buildings from attack.
"The Commission expects the Palestinian authorities to ensure that European premises are properly protected," the EU said.
Separately, about 400 Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians gathered later in Gaza City to express solidarity against the caricatures.
And armed men with links to the Fatah Party handed out red carnations at a Roman Catholic school in the city to apologize for other Fatah gunmen who threatened earlier to target churches as part of their protests.
"We came to show that we are united, Muslims and Christians, and that we oppose assaulting our Christian brothers," said one gunman, flowers in hand.
In the Gaza town of Khan Younis, about 200 women supporters of Hamas marched through the streets, chanting, "We are ready to redeem you with our souls and our blood, our beloved prophet," and "Down with Denmark." Some carried placards calling for a boycott of Danish products.
Boycotting Denmark was also a theme at a protest in the West Bank town of Hebron, where about 50 Palestinians burned a Danish flag and chanted, "We will redeem our prophet, Muhammad, with our blood."
In Nazareth, thousands gathered peacefully, with women and children wearing green Islamic Movement banners around their heads, and men in the front row of the protest march walking with arms linked, and chanting, "God is Great."
Some carried signs in English reading, "Infidels, your day will come," and "Don't hurt our prophet's feelings."