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Burlington Shooting of Three Young Men From the West Bank Reverberates Around the Globe

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Published November 29, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


From left: Tahseen Ali Ahmad, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Hisham Awartani - COURTESY OF INSTITUTE FOR MIDDLE EAST UNDERSTANDING
  • Courtesy of Institute for Middle East Understanding
  • From left: Tahseen Ali Ahmad, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Hisham Awartani

Four gunshots fired on a quiet Burlington street over the weekend changed the lives of three college students of Palestinian descent, shocked residents and thrust the city into the international spotlight. Now investigators must determine whether the suspected shooter, a city resident, committed a hate crime when he carried out his unprovoked attack.

Local, state and federal officials — including President Joe Biden — condemned the spasm of violence. The three young men who were wounded — Hisham Awartani, Tahseen Ali Ahmad and Kinnan Abdalhamid, all 20 years old — are childhood friends who grew up in the West Bank. They now attend colleges on the East Coast and were visiting Burlington for the Thanksgiving holiday. All are expected to survive, though Awartani may be paralyzed, his mother told NPR.

By Monday morning, a suspect had been arrested and arraigned on three charges of attempted second-degree murder. Jason J. Eaton, 48, appeared in Vermont Superior Court by video from prison, where he was being held without bail.

Surrounded by officials later on Monday at a city hall press conference, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger described the shooting as "one of the most shocking and disturbing events in the city's history."

"This horrific, unprovoked attack was a tragic violation of the values and character of this welcoming, inclusive community," he told a crowded room of reporters.

In interviews with investigators, the victims described a low-key visit to Burlington. They'd arrived on November 22 and mostly hung out at Awartani's grandmother's house on North Prospect Street and took walks around the neighborhood. On Saturday, the college students went to a bowling alley birthday party for Awartani's 8-year-old twin cousins.

Later, around 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, they were walking on North Prospect Street, speaking a mix of English and Arabic. Two of them were wearing kaffiyehs, a distinctive patterned scarf that is a symbol of Palestinian identity. A man matching Eaton's description approached from a nearby apartment building, pulled out a gun and, without saying a word, started firing, court filings say. Abdalhamid later told investigators he'd never seen the shooter before.

Five people who live near the shooting scene told Seven Days they didn't hear any commotion before the shots rang out. One neighbor ran out and covered two of the victims with blankets before police arrived.

Abdalhamid was shot in a gluteal muscle, according to the court documents, while Ali Ahmad was struck in his upper right chest. A bullet lodged in Awartani's spine, the court filings say.

Awartani's mother, Elizabeth Price, spoke to NPR on Monday from her home in the West Bank. She said she and her husband hadn't wanted their son to come home for the holidays because they thought he'd be safer in the U.S. than in Ramallah amid the Israel-Hamas war.

"The doctors are currently saying it's unlikely he'll be able to use his legs again," Price told NPR. "He's confronting a life of disability, a potentially irreversible change to his life and what it means for his future."

The victims all had attended the Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker school in the West Bank. Now, Awartani is a student at Brown University in Providence, R.I.; Abdalhamid studies at Haverford College outside Philadelphia, Pa.; and Ali Ahmad is at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

On Sunday afternoon, a man who gave his first name as Sulaiman and said he is Palestinian placed a lemon cypress tree on the front steps of a home near where the victims were shot. He was visiting Burlington from Philadelphia but said he used to live in the neighborhood.

"This very easily could have been me," he said. "I'm sick to my stomach."

On Sunday evening, before Eaton's arrest had been announced, more than 250 people gathered in front of Burlington City Hall to condemn what they called a hate crime. The demonstrators lit candles for the victims and vowed to press the Palestinian cause even more vigorously.

"We will not be silenced," said Ashley Smith, a local pro-Palestinian activist and organizer.

The activists charged that pro-Israel and anti-Palestine rhetoric from local, state and federal leaders has created a climate that leads to violence against Palestinians. But their intimidation, Smith said, "will only make us raise our voices ever louder."

Among the speakers at the gathering was Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who said he stood in solidarity with the activists but urged them not to let their anger lead to more violence.

"We can't return that pain with pain for others," he said.

Police Chief Jon Murad speaking at Monday's press conference - COURTNEY LAMDIN
  • Courtney Lamdin
  • Police Chief Jon Murad speaking at Monday's press conference

At Monday's press conference, local and federal authorities said they were still investigating Eaton's motive and whether the shooting was a hate crime.

Under state law, hate crimes carry additional punishments but must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. "Although we do not yet have evidence to support a hate crime enhancement, I do want to be clear that there is no question this was a hateful act," Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George said.

Law enforcement officers, including agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, spent Saturday evening and Sunday canvassing the neighborhood for evidence and interviewing people who lived nearby.

"I've been waiting for you," Eaton told an ATF agent who knocked on his door Sunday afternoon, court records say. He refused to identify himself but came out with his palms up and asked for a lawyer. Asked whether there were guns inside his apartment, Eaton told the agent he had a shotgun.

Eaton was subsequently detained. A search of his apartment turned up ammunition and four guns, including a Ruger .380-caliber LCP pistol, and a loaded magazine containing five rounds of ammunition with red tips matching the brand of rounds found at the scene. Ballistics testing later connected the pistol to the fired rounds, according to Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad.

Eaton bought the pistol in April at a gun store in Williston, according to court records.

Murad said Eaton appeared to have moved to Burlington from Syracuse, N.Y., over the summer and was living in an apartment at 69 North Prospect Street. The shooting occurred in front of Eaton's building.

Inside Eaton's home, investigators discovered several cellphones and a backpack of computer hard drives.

Police didn't share any insights about Eaton's motivations or beliefs, but his mother, Mary Reed, told the Daily Beast on Monday that her son is "a very religious person" who often reads the Bible.

"He, like all of us, thinks the world is a mess," Reed told the outlet. "He is a spiritual person."

Reed did not return an interview request from Seven Days on Monday.

Online, Eaton posted content from a Unitarian Universalist church. In a statement to Seven Days, the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington confirmed that Eaton had volunteered there for "a short time" but had never been a member of the congregation.

"As a faith tradition, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. We pray for the recovery of these young people and that their families and loved ones will know comfort and support," the statement said.

Eaton's mother also told the Daily Beast that her son has dealt with depression and "other mental health issues" but was in a good mood when she saw him on Thanksgiving. Eaton didn't bring up the Middle East at dinner, Reed told the Daily Beast.

The shooting has garnered international attention amid the brutal war between Israel and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip and conducted a surprise attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people last month. Israel has responded with a bombing campaign and ground invasion that has killed an estimated 14,000 people.

For the past few days, the sides have abided by a tenuous cease-fire agreement, and Hamas has returned dozens of the 240 hostages it took during the October 7 attack.

"This is a dangerous time in America if you are associated with a group that is involved in these conflicts," Price, Awartani's mother, told CNN. "There is too much hate speech against all sides. In that toxic context, people take action on their own with devastating consequences."

On Tuesday, a pro-Palestine student group at Brown University posted a statement attributed to Awartani on Instagram in which he described the attack as part of a "larger story."

"This hideous crime did not happen in a vacuum. As much as I appreciate and love every single one of you here today, I am but one casualty in this much wider conflict," Awartani wrote.

Had he been shot in the West Bank, where he grew up, the Israeli army would have likely withheld medical services from him, he wrote, and the soldier who shot him would have never been convicted.

"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," he wrote. He added that he hoped to be thought of as not just "as an individual, but rather as a proud member of a people being oppressed."

In a written statement, President Biden said he was "horrified" to learn about the shooting and was praying for the victims' recovery. He said he'd spoken with Mayor Weinberger and offered help from federal authorities.

"While we are waiting for more facts, we know this: there is absolutely no place for violence or hate in America. Period," the president said. "No person should worry about being shot at while going about their daily lives."

At the press conference, Weinberger expressed his sympathies to two of the victims' uncles, who were in attendance.

Richard Price, Awartani's uncle and a Burlington resident, said people often ask him whether he's worried about the safety of his relatives in the West Bank.

"The reality is, as difficult as their life is, they are surrounded by an incredible sense of community," he said.

That the young men were ultimately less safe in Vermont — "tragic irony is not even the right phrase," he said. "It speaks to the level of hatred that exists in some corners of this country. It speaks to a sickness of gun violence that exists in this country."

Radi Tamimi, Abdalhamid's uncle who lives in San Francisco, came to the press conference directly from the Burlington airport. Both he and Price said their families understand that the investigation will take time. But they said they suspected their nephews were victims of a hate crime.

"To imagine, with everything that's happening, that this was just a random act?" Tamimi said. "It doesn't feel that way."

The original print version of this article was headlined "'A Hateful Act' | The Burlington shooting of three young men from the West Bank reverberates around the globe"

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