A throng of men clutching the body of a seven-year-old Palestinian boy marched through a town in the occupied West Bank towards the child’s final resting place on Friday, a day after his parents say he died from fear of armed Israeli soldiers.
Rayan Suleiman, with bright eyes and a backpack emblazoned with an animated racing car, was walking home from school on Thursday when his family said he and his brothers were chased by Israeli soldiers.
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After the boys bolted home, the troops banged furiously on the door and threatened to arrest them. Just moments later, Rayan, the youngest of the three brothers, was dead.
Rayan’s cousin, Mohammed Suleiman, told Al Jazeera that upon his arrival at his house, Rayan was chased by the soldiers who were yelling at him.
“The soldiers shouted at him that he’s [a] stone thrower,” he said. “He ran away from one side, and the soldier met him from the other side [of the house]. Rayan saw the soldier in front of him, and was shocked and dropped dead out of fear,” he said.
Hadeel Salman, a neighbour and witness, said Israeli soldiers were “going in all directions looking for any child they could find”.
“The soldiers even summoned my young brother – they told him he threw stones at them and needed to be arrested,” Salman told Al Jazeera. “He insisted he had nothing to do with it.”
The story spread across the West Bank, providing an emotive focus for fury over Israel’s military tactics.
The US State Department demanded an investigation, while the European Union said it was “shocked” by Rayan’s “tragic death”.
Photographs of Rayan’s tiny, lifeless body under a sheet in the hospital became a potent new symbol overnight. His death came a day after the deadliest Israeli incursion since the military escalated its crackdown on parts of the West Bank earlier this year.
The Israeli military has denied any violence in the interaction with Rayan’s family, saying that just one officer went to the family’s house after spotting children throwing stones.
Richard Hecht, a military spokesman, said the officer spoke in a “very calm manner” with Rayan’s father and left.
“There was no violence, no entry into the house,” Hecht said.
Yasser Suleiman, Rayan’s father, also told The Associated Press news agency on Friday that Rayan had collapsed after he saw the Israeli soldiers who chased him appear at his front door.
The boy’s father said he was trying to reason with the soldiers, who accused his children of throwing rocks. The soldiers threatened to return at night and arrest all three children, including Rayan’s older brothers, aged eight and 10, Suleiman said. Amid the chaos, Rayan fell on the floor, unconscious.
Doctors at a hospital in Beit Jala, a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem, could not resuscitate him. A paediatric specialist, Mohamed Ismail, said Rayan was healthy and had no previous medical conditions.
“The most probable scenario of what happened is that under stress, he had excess adrenaline secretion, which caused the increase of his heartbeat,” Ismail said. “He developed cardiac arrest.”
A forensic doctor is currently conducting an autopsy on Rayan.
On Friday, a crowd of mourners thronged his body outside his stone house in Tequa, a Palestinian town that borders an illegal Jewish settlement with some 4,000 Israelis.
“God is great!” they shouted, some jogging to stay ahead of his small body on the wooden pallet. “Oh Rayan, light of the eye!”
Al Jazeera’s Nida Ibrahim, reporting from Tequa, said while Israeli media reported that soldiers were looking for stone throwers, “people here say that even if children were throwing stones, what harm would a seven-year-old pose to soldiers who are armed to their teeth?”
“They say the main goal that Israel wants is to instil fear and control among Palestinians living under military occupation,” Ibrahim said.
Shortly after the funeral, confrontations between Palestinians and armed Israeli soldiers broke out in Tequa.
Despite the anger and sadness that has overcome the residents of the Palestinian town, Israeli soldiers continued to conduct patrols, roaming around the streets since Friday morning, according to an Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent.
Separately, at least nine Palestinians were arrested by Israeli forces across the West Bank on Friday.