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Palestinian students shot in Vermont say the suspect waited for and targeted them

A walk around the block ends in tragedy

Awartani, Abdalhamid and Ahmad had just come back to Awartani’s grandmother’s house from a bowling alley when they decided to take a walk around the block. The three friends were in Burlington to celebrate Thanksgiving at the house of Awartani’s grandmother.

This was a walk the three almost lifelong friends had done more than once. Just the day before the shooting, they’d walked on the same path along the street that Awartani’s grandmother’s house is on. Abdalhamid was wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh, a scarf that has become a symbol of Palestinian solidarity.

But on Nov. 25, as they walked they saw a man standing across the road come down the porch of a home, pull out a pistol and shoot them. Awartani and Abdalhamid believe the man may have seen them before and was possibly waiting for them that day.

“I don’t know why he’d have a loaded pistol and stand on the porch,” Abdalhamid said.

Awartani and Ahmad were wearing keffiyehs when they were shot, and all three of them were speaking Arabic with occasional English words woven in.

The man pointed the pistol at Ahmad first, then Awartani, Abdalhamid said.

“Tahseen was screaming. He was shot first,” Abdalhamid said. “Hisham didn’t make a sound. As soon as Tahseen started screaming, I was running.”

Jason Eaton, 48, was arrested two days later in connection with the shooting. He has pleaded not guilty to three counts of second-degree attempted murder. Police have not yet revealed a presumed motive for the shooting, saying the investigation is ongoing.

The agencies handling the investigation — the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and police — have not responded to NBC News’ requests for an update.

There’s not a doubt in Abdalhamid and Awartani’s minds that all three of them were shot because they are Palestinian, they said. They believe what happened to them was a hate crime.

“I don’t think too much about if there’s gonna be hate crime charges,” Awartani said. “I just care that, like, justice is served. And to me, that is a part of it. But I know that it is a hate crime.”

The house where Eaton was staying when he allegedly shot three Palestinian college students.
The house where Eaton was staying when he allegedly shot three Palestinian college students.Hasan Jamali / AP

The shooting is part of a ‘larger systematic issue’

Abdalhamid warns against pinning the climate of hate on one person.

“I think there’s been a lot of attempts for us to fully only demonize the guy, but we realize this is part of a larger systematic issue,” he said.

A missile explodes in Gaza City
A missile explodes in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on Oct. 8.Mahmud Hams / AFP via Getty Images

“But the truth is, he’s a symptom of a larger issue. And the root cause is, again, like I said, systematic dehumanization.”

Abdalhamid said it’s this systematic dehumanization of Palestinians that bred the environment of hate, which he alleges is the reason Eaton shot them.

“It’s something that, you know, has always been the case, like, in, Western discourse through the media. Like, the Palestinian is assumed by default to be terrorist,” Awartani said. “And when he saw us, it was like — he just connected the dots.”

Abdalhamid and Awartani have some hope that things in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank will get better.

“As Palestinians, we’re hopeful, but we’re not optimistic. Because, I mean, there’s never been room for optimism for us because it’s just been the same as it was all this time,” Awartani said.

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