Communities shaken by shootings of US Palestinian students in Vermont
The shootings of three Palestinian US university students in Burlington, Vermont has shaken communities from the US to the West Bank and beyond, as people are left grappling with the strong possibility of the attack being a hate crime similar to the killing of Palestinian-American 6-year-old Wadea al-Fayoume.
Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmed, all 20-year-old US university students and graduates of the Ramallah Friends School, had just gone bowling together, when they were walking back to Awartani's grandmother's house, where they were spending the Thanksgiving weekend.
Awartani, a student at Brown, was shot in the spine, and it is still unclear if he will have movement in his legs in the future; Kinnan Abdalhamid, a Haverford College student suffered a wound in the buttock; and Tahseen Ali Ahmed, a student at Trinity College, was shot in the abdomen.
A seemingly safe environment
Awartani's family had reportedly encouraged him to stay in the US for the holiday, thinking it was safer with the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine.
Vermont is considered one of the safest states in the US. According to law enforcement data, the state ranks as the fifth safest in the country. It is best known for its apples, maple syrup, autumn foliage and winter skiing.
Though its population is largely white and ageing, it has a growing immigrant community that has been generally welcomed. Despite Vermont's lack of diversity, it was one of the first states to pass legislation for schools to recognise the Muslim Eid holidays.
It is home to Bernie Sanders, one of the most outspoken US senators on Palestinian rights by American standards. The city's mayor, Miro Weinberger, hosts a weekly public breakfast with constituents at a local bagel shop.
In a public statement, the mayor described the incident as "one of the most shocking and disturbing events in this city’s history."
He added, "This horrific unprovoked attack was a tragic violation of the values and character of this welcoming, inclusive community."
Hisham, Kinnan, and Tahseen are all Palestinian college students who were shot while wearing keffiyehs and speaking Arabic in Vermont. I am calling on @TheJusticeDept and @FBI to investigate this as a possible hate crime and hold the person responsible accountable. pic.twitter.com/9mwuVSiz7F— Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (@RepRashida) November 27, 2023
It is perhaps because of this seemingly safe environment that the young men felt comfortable speaking Arabic, with two of them wearing their traditional Palestinian keffiyeh scarves, leading many to raise the question of the incident being a hate crime.
"They were speaking in Arabic, they were wearing Keffiyehs. A possible bias motive needs to be investigated," Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The New Arab. "We'll have to wait for the results of the investigation to make a final determination."
According to a report issued by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) published on 4 November, one month into the conflict, there have been 1,283 complaints of bias incidents, a 216 percent increase when compared with similar time periods in previous years.
It is believed that most such hate crimes go unreported, according to a study by the University of California Berkeley's Othering & Belonging Institute.
"The surge in anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian sentiment we are experiencing is unprecedented, and this is another example of that hate turning violent," said Abed Ayoub, national executive director of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), in a public statement.
As of Monday evening, law enforcement, who have a suspect in custody, had not established a motive. However, they said they were looking into the possibility a hate crime and described the incident as a hateful act.
An unstable suspect in a state with lax gun regulations
The suspect, Jason Eaton, 48, was arraigned on Monday after law enforcement had been canvassing the neighbourhood and later in the day pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted second-degree murder.
Eaton's mother, who had seen her son on Thanksgiving, described him as kind, though said he has struggled with mental illness and depression.
Earlier this year, the state passed a law requiring a 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases due to its high suicide rate, and some legislators have been advocating for stricter gun laws for the mentally ill. However, Vermont remains among the more lenient states for gun safety.
So far, law enforcement have found that Eaton held far-right views, including ones related to health and science.
According to a report by Vice, in a now-locked account on X, he describes himself as a "radical citizen" who patrols "demockracy and crapitalism for oathcreepers. [Sic]" He was also involved in online discussions against Anthony Fauci, former chief medical advisor to the president famed during the Covid-19 lockdowns and vaccination drives opposed by some in the American fringe.
What is known as this point is that Eaton shot the young men at close range, close enough to hear them speaking Arabic and see what they were wearing.
As the three friends were walking down the street, they passed a white house, and a man came down from the front porch.
According to the affidavit, fearing the man would shoot them, Abdalhamid said he ran across the street and jumped over a fence. He said he hid for approximately two minutes before running to a nearby yard and begged a woman to call 911. After sitting down, he realized that he was wounded.
In addition to sending shockwaves through the generally safe Vermont community, the young men's families in Palestine already grappling with conflict back home, as well as the Arab and Muslim communities in the US facing a sharp rise in hate crime, there is the tight-knit community of the Friends schools.
The Quaker-founded school system has locations around the world, including in Ramallah. The schools are considered high quality, not just for their education, but also for their social values of civic leadership. The Ramallah Friends School's notable alumni include politician Hanan Ashrawi, academic Amaney Jamal, and human rights leader Raja Shehadeh. In the US, the children of US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama attended the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC.
Drew Smith, executive director of the Friends Council on Education, based in Philadelphia, told TNA, "Our hearts are full of sorrow. We are holding them in the Light as they recover from their injuries. We yearn for peace."