Three Victims in Burlington Shooting Were of Palestinian Descent | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Three Victims in Burlington Shooting Were of Palestinian Descent

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Published November 26, 2023 at 1:32 p.m.

From left: Tahseen Ali Ahmad, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Hisham Awartani - COURTESY OF THE INSTITUTE FOR MIDDLE EAST UNDERSTANDING
  • Courtesy of the Institute for Middle East Understanding
  • From left: Tahseen Ali Ahmad, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Hisham Awartani
Updated on November 27, 2023.

Burlington police are investigating the shooting of three Palestinian men near the University of Vermont campus on Saturday night as a potential hate crime.

Just after midnight on Monday, Burlington police announced they'd arrested Jason J. Eaton, 48, who lived in the apartment building outside of which the shooting took place. He's expected to be arraigned later on Monday.

The three victims, all 20-year-old college students, were visiting a Burlington relative of one of the men for Thanksgiving, police said on Sunday afternoon. They were walking along North Prospect Street around 6:30 p.m. when a white man confronted them and began shooting. All three victims are "of Palestinian descent,” police said; two are American citizens and one is a legal resident.

Without speaking, the man fired a handgun at least four times, according to police. Two of the victims were struck in the torso and the other in his lower extremities. All three were transported to the University of Vermont Medical Center. Two of the victims are stable, but the other “has sustained much more serious injuries,” police said.
First responders at the North Prospect Street shooting scene - COURTESY WAYNE SAVAGE
  • Courtesy Wayne Savage
  • First responders at the North Prospect Street shooting scene
The shooter fled the scene, a residential neighborhood, on foot.
Two of the victims were wearing a keffiyeh, a patterned scarf that is a symbol of Palestinian identity. A keffiyeh can be seen near the sidewalk in a crime scene video provided to Seven Days by freelance photographer Wayne Savage.

The shooting has garnered attention around the globe amid a delicate truce and hostage exchange in the brutal war between Hamas and Israel. President Joe Biden has been briefed on the investigation, NBC News reported.

Police Chief Jon Murad said in a press release on Sunday afternoon that he has contacted federal officials for assistance in case the shooting was a hate crime. Police are still working to identify a suspect and motive.

“The fact is that we don’t yet know as much as we want to right now,” Murad said. “But I urge the public to avoid making conclusions based on statements from uninvolved parties who know even less.”

In a statement, Mayor Miro Weinberger called the possible hate crime “chilling.”

“The City of Burlington has zero tolerance for hate crimes and will work relentlessly to bring the shooter to justice,” he said.

Gov. Phil Scott, in a separate statement, said the state is offering “full support” to the City of Burlington for the investigation. He urged Vermonters to “not let this incident incite more hate or divisiveness.

“We must come together in these difficult times — it is the only way to put a stop to the violence we’re seeing,” Scott said.

Police haven’t identified the victims, but their families shared a statement on Sunday via the Institute for Middle East Understanding naming them as Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad.

Awartani is a student at Brown University in Providence, R.I.; Abdalhamid studies at Haverford College outside Philadelphia, Pa.; and Ali Ahmad attends Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., news outlets in those cities confirmed.

The friends were walking to the Burlington home of Awartani's grandmother for dinner when they were shot, his great-uncle Marwan Awartani, a former education minister of the Palestinian Authority, told the New York Times.

No one answered the door at the home on Sunday afternoon. The bullet that struck Awartani touched his spinal cord, his great-uncle told the Times. The Brown junior is expected to survive his injuries, university president
Christina Paxson said in a statement.

In an Instagram post, Haverford College said its dean of students was traveling to Burlington on Sunday. The victims all had attended the Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker school in the West Bank, according to its Facebook page.

Their families said they were “devastated” by the shooting.

“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,” the statement said. “We need to ensure that our children are protected, and this heinous crime is not repeated. No family should ever have to endure this pain and agony.”

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

Wafic Faour, a longtime Palestinian activist in Vermont, said he had been trying on Sunday morning to get information about the incident from local and state authorities, to no avail. He said Vermont Palestinians were anxious to understand what had happened.

“Not only are we worried about the victims, but I am worried about the community, too,” he said.

Faour said a stepfather of one of the men contacted him on Sunday morning. Other local activists told Faour they had met some of the victims at a pro-Palestinian demonstration on Church Street on Friday night.

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.”
Burlington Police at the scene of a triple shooting on North Prospect Street - DEREK BROUWER ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Derek Brouwer ©️ Seven Days
  • Burlington Police at the scene of a triple shooting on North Prospect Street
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, both civil rights organizations, called on Vermont law enforcement to investigate the shootings as a hate crime. CAIR is offering a $10,000 reward for information that helps lead to an arrest.

The war in Gaza, which began with Hamas’ surprise attack in Israel on October 7, has deepened divisions across the U.S. In the weeks that followed, a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy was fatally stabbed in a Chicago suburb by his family’s landlord in what police have said was a hate crime. During dueling rallies near Los Angeles earlier this month, a Jewish pro-Israeli demonstrator died from injuries sustained during an altercation with a pro-Palestinian counterpart.

In Burlington, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli activists have held numerous demonstrations. All the events have been peaceful.

On Sunday, U.S. Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.), who has called for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, said in a statement about the shooting that she was "horrified by this violence and my heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones."

In a statement of his own on Sunday, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called the violence “shocking and deeply upsetting.

“Hate has no place here, or anywhere. I look forward to a full investigation,” the statement read. “My thoughts are with them and their families.”
Wafic Faour, center, at Sunday's rally - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Wafic Faour, center, at Sunday's rally
Later on Sunday evening, more than 250 people gathered in front of 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 is creating 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 was Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who said he stood in solidarity with the activists but urged them to not let their anger lead to more violence.

“We can’t return that pain with pain for others,” he said.
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • At Sunday's rally
In separate speeches, several UVM students criticized university president Suresh Garimella’s response to the violence that occurred so close to campus. They objected to Garimella’s written statement, which did not offer specific reassurances or protections to Palestinian students who may feel targeted.

“The UVM administration has repeatedly failed these students,” one speaker said.

Organizers said they declined an offer by Burlington police to provide security for the rally. Instead, they enlisted activists to scan the area for threats and try to calm any agitators. Volunteers offered escorts home so that attendees didn’t have to travel alone.

The event went off without interruption, except for a moment when one man yelled at the group from down the block. A man with an Israeli flag stood near the demonstration but did not interrupt the event.

Smith closed the rally by urging pro-Palestinian supporters to attend a demonstration in Montpelier next Saturday.

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