JERUSALEM — Israel, already on the defensive over European criticism of its policies, has picked a diplomatic fight with Sweden over an unsubstantiated newspaper "expose" suggesting that Israeli soldiers harvested the organs of Palestinians who died in army custody.
The article in the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet on Aug. 17 drew little attention until Israel demanded, two days later, that Sweden's government condemn it. Swedish officials refused, saying the newspaper has a constitutional right to free expression.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined a chorus of Israeli protest against the Swedish stance, saying it ignores the article's potential to incite violence against Jews. Addressing his Cabinet, Netanyahu likened the report to "medieval libels that Jews killed Christian children for their blood," said an official who was present.
Two of the tabloid's reporters were told Sunday their applications for press credentials in Israel would be delayed for 90 days. An Israeli website announced a campaign to shun IKEA furniture and other Swedish products.
The tempest could strain Israel's already fragile relations in Europe. Sweden holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, and Netanyahu is leaving today on a visit to Britain and Germany.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt is to visit Israel on Sept. 10, but Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz suggested he may not be welcome.
Israel's reaction is a measure of sensitivity to strong international criticism of its offensive in the Gaza Strip and the policies of Netanyahu's 5-month-old government. Israel is resisting U.S. and European demands to halt all growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as a prelude to peace talks with the Palestinians.
The Swedish article repeated Palestinian allegations, dating to the early 1990s and denied by the Israeli military, that troops removed dead prisoners' organs. The writer, Donald Bostrom, said the allegations should be reexamined in light of last month's arrest of an American Jew charged with plotting to buy a kidney from an Israeli and sell it to an American patient.
Bostrom later told Israel Radio he could not vouch for the accuracy of the accounts of his Palestinian informants.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the article had "an odor of anti-Semitism." The Swedish government's refusal to condemn it, he said, recalled Sweden's neutrality during World War II.
In a blog Thursday, Bildt denied that Sweden harbors anti-Semitic sentiments. He said he understood why the article stirred strong emotions in Israel but defended free discussion.
Lena Posner, head of the Jewish community in Stockholm, told Israel's Ynet news website that Israel had blown an obscure article out of proportion and caused a backlash.
"In Sweden, as in Israel, freedom of expression is sacred," she said. "Everyone in Sweden cannot understand how Israel dares to interfere."