United States: Islamophobia rises as Palestinian students shot in Vermont

December 6, 2023
three people smiling
More than US$1.1 million has already been donated towards Hashim Awartani's (centre) recovery. Photo: gofundme.com

Three 20-year-old Palestinian university students, Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ahmed, were shot in broad daylight on November 25, as they walked down a street in Burlington, Vermont in the United States.

Last month, a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy was stabbed to death in Chicago, Illinois.

These attacks have raised the alarm about rising Islamophobia in the US, in the wake of Israel’s genocidal war on the people of Gaza, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 16,000 Palestinians.

Mainstream media coverage and political discourse surrounding the October 7 Hamas attacks and the US-backed Israeli war is fuelling anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in the US.

Israel resumed its massacre on November 30, after a pause in bombing.

The rise of Islamophobia reflects President Joe Biden’s full-throated, 100% support for Israel’s war.

Although the Vermont shootings were clearly hate crimes, police said at the time that they were “investigating” the shooter’s motivation.

Awartani, Abdalhamid and Ahmed were speaking a mix of Arabic and English to each other and two of them were wearing keffiyeh (Palestinian scarves), when they were shot. Awartani is paralysed from the chest down.

Jason Eaton, the alleged shooter, is a 48-year-old white man. He was apprehended and pled “not guilty” to the attack.

All three are graduates of the Ramallah Friends School, a private Quaker secondary school in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Awartani is a student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. His great-uncle Marwan Awartani is a former Palestinian education minister.

Christina Paxson, president of Brown University said in a statement: “There are not enough words to express the deep anguish I feel for Hisham, his parents and family members, and his friends.

“I know that this heinous and despicable act of violence — this latest evidence of anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian discrimination and hate spiraling across this country and around the world — will leave many in our community deeply shaken.”

Abdalhamid studies at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. In a statement following the shooting, the college said it “condemns all acts of hatred”.

Ahmed is a student at Trinity College in Connecticut. Trinity College said in a statement: “At this moment, please keep Tahseen and his friends in your heart.”

Hate crime

Agents arrested Eaton while conducting a search of the shooting area in Burlington.

Burlington police chief Jon Murad said: “In this charged moment, no one can look at this incident and not suspect that it may have been a hate-motivated crime…”

However, he also added: “…I urge the public to avoid making conclusions based on statements from uninvolved parties...”

As reported by Al Jazeera, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee released a statement saying that there is “reason to believe this shooting occurred because the victims are Arab”.

The Institute for Middle East Understanding posted a statement on X, which it said was from the victims’ families.

“We are extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of our children,” the statement said. “We call on law enforcement to conduct a thorough investigation, including treating this as a hate crime. We will not be comfortable until the shooter is brought to justice.”

In response to the shooting, the Democratic Party’s House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries encouraged people to “unequivocally denounce the startling rise of anti-Arab hate and Islamophobia in America”.

Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders also denounced the shooting, posting: “It is shocking and deeply upsetting that three young Palestinians were shot here in Burlington, VT [Vermont]. Hate has no place here, or anywhere.”

However, up till now Sanders has refused to support a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, although he does call for further US aid to Israel to be conditional on adherence to international law.

Solidarity actions

The coalition of Ivy League students for Palestine called on students from Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale universities to “wear their keffiyehs and the colors of the Palestinian flag in solidarity. In the face of hatred, we will not stand down.”

Hundreds of people also gathered outside Burlington city hall on November 26, in support of the shooting victims.

A member of the University of Vermont Students for Justice in Palestine told vermontpublic.org: “This attack is the direct result of the horrific tide of dehumanizing rhetoric against us. This attack is the direct result of the refusal of our institutions to protect us from it.”

Wafic Faour from Vermonters for Justice in Palestine — which helped organise the rally — told vermontpublic.org: “Words are very important. We should say, what happened to those people, civilian people in Gaza, it was a slaughter. It was genocide. You know, everybody tries to swerve away from saying the truth, it is the hate crime…

“The situation here in Vermont and Burlington have been fueled for a long time in our government official and institutions. Murad himself, the chief of police of Burlington, he threatened us and many members of my community [with] arrest just on Friday evening, when we are peacefully and silently standing [by] a Christmas tree lighting and carrying photos of Palestinian children getting killed at the hands of the Israeli by American weapons.”

Faour said hate and harassment isn’t new but has been building for years, and is happening across the country.

Alex Fischer with Jewish Voice for Peace, the largest Jewish anti-Zionist organization in the US, told vermontpublic.org: “One of the major tenets of Judaism, tikkun olam, a healed and just world is actually in accordance with anti-Zionism, with the idea that we can exist, and that we must exist, in coordination, you know, and peace with others and not using Judaism as an excuse for occupation violence…

“Where the attention is on us and our safety, (we) use that moment to focus on Palestinians and really share that I'm not interested in safety for myself unless there is safety for my Palestinian and Arab family and friends.”

A text message from Awartani was read out at a vigil held for him in Providence on November 27.

"It's important to recognize that this is part of a larger story. This hideous crime did not happen in a vacuum.

"As much as I appreciate every single one of you here today, I am one casualty in this much wider conflict."

Awartani's mother, Elizabeth Price, told ABC News that doctors are unsure if he will be able to walk again.

"Had I been shot in the West Bank, where I grew up, the medical services that saved my life here would likely have been withheld by the Israeli army. The soldier who shot me would go home and never be convicted," Awartani wrote in the message.

"I understand that the pain is so much more real and immediate because many of you know me, but any attack like this is horrific, be it here or in Palestine."

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