FANS of “NCIS” are outraged that CBS honchos let beloved star Cote de Pablo go from the top-rated show – and they’re likely to be even more upset to learn that it was all just a show of force!

A source close to “NCIS” says that the 33-year-old Chilean American actress – who has played former Mossad agent Ziva David for eight seasons – got into a contract dispute, and when negotiations broke down, she walked.

The network and p;roducer wanted to send a clear message to the rest of the cast that, if you’re going to ask for more money, you’re going to be out of the show,” said the insider.

Mark Harmon is the only one who has seen a substantial boost in salary, going from about $500,000 to $700,000 per episode. That’s because they feel he’s absolutely essential while everyone else is expendable.”

The rest of the cast on the show – which follows an elite unit that investigates crime in the Navy and Marine Corps – renewed their contracts right before the start of the 10th season last year.

Meanwhile, the insider says that Cote’s character will most likely be killed off “in a blaze of glory,” with a big funeral scene set for Episode 2. But a lot of viewers aren’t happy with THAT.

An online petition has already amassed a couple thousand signatures with one angry fan writing: “CBS is making a huge mistake, and they will regret it. Cote de Pablo IS NOT REPLACEABLE.”

Another blasted: “The show just won’t be the same without her.”