BURLINGTON, USA: Vigils for three college students of Palestinian descent who were shot in Vermont over the weekend prompted calls for authorities to recognize the violence as a hate crime, and for unity among the Jewish and Arab communities.
Jason J. Eaton, 48, was arrested and held without bail on three counts of attempted murder. A not guilty plea was entered on his behalf on Monday.
The US Department of Justice, along with Vermont authorities, are still investigating whether Saturday’s gunfire on a Burlington street was a hate crime amid an increase in threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities across the US since the Israel-Hamas war began, Attorney General Merrick Garland said. “There is understandable fear in communities across the country,” he said.
One vigil was held Monday night at Brown University in Rhode Island, where one of the victims, Hisham Awartani, is a student. Participants shouted at school president Christina Paxson as she addressed the crowd, demanding that Brown divest from investments that support Israel, according to media reports.
Robert Leikend, New England regional director for the American Jewish Committee, called for unity and finding common ground between the Jewish and Arab communities, saying in a statement Monday night that “hate should not beget more hate.”
He said a vigil after Eaton’s arrest “featured anti-Israel and antisemitic statements from some participants.” He didn’t name the location.
“The anger is understandable. The finger-pointing is not,” he said.
The vigil at Brown was closed to media. NBC News reported that Awartani said in a statement read by a professor that as much as he appreciates the love and support of the community, “I am but one casualty in a much wider conflict.”
The statement read, “Had I been shot in the West Bank, where I grew up, the medical services which saved my life here would have likely been withheld by the Israeli army. The soldier who would have shot me would go home and never be convicted.”
Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, all age 20, were spending their Thanksgiving break in Burlington, and were out for a walk while visiting one of the victims’ relatives when they were confronted by a white man with a handgun, police said. The victims were speaking in a mix of English and Arabic and two of them were also wearing the black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh scarves when they were shot, Police Chief Jon Murad said.
Abdalhamid told police he ran away, jumped a fence, and hid behind a house. He eventually knocked on another door, begging the woman who answered to call 911. At that point, he sat down, felt pain, and saw blood, according to an affidavit.
Two of the students were struck in their torsos, while one was hit in the lower body, Murad said. All three were being treated at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and one faces a long recovery because of a spinal injury, a family member said.
One of the students has been released from the hospital, according to media reports.
“I’ve been with them almost constantly since Saturday evening. I’ve been listening to them talk to one another and try to process the events, and I’m blown away by their resilience, by their good humor in the face of these difficult times,” said Rich Price, Awartani’s uncle.
The three have been friends since first grade at Ramallah Friends School, a private school in the West Bank, and all are “remarkable, distinguished students,” said Rania Ma’ayeh, head of the school.
Awartani is studying mathematics and archaeology at Brown; Abdalhamid is a pre-med student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania; and Ali Ahmad is studying mathematics and IT at Trinity College in Connecticut, Ma’ayeh said. Awartani and Abdalhamid are US citizens while Ali Ahmad is studying on a student visa, Ma’ayeh said.
Abdalhamid’s uncle Radi Tamimi, said at a news conference Monday his nephew grew up in the West Bank and “we always thought that that could be more of a risk in terms of his safety and sending him here would be a right decision.
“We feel somehow betrayed in that decision here and we’re just trying to come to terms with everything,” he said.
Eaton moved to Burlington over the summer from Syracuse, New York, and legally purchased the gun used in the shooting, Murad told reporters. According to a police affidavit, federal agents found the gun in Eaton’s apartment on Sunday. Eaton came to the door holding his hands, palms up, and told the officers he’d been waiting for them.
Eaton’s mother, Mary Reed, told the Daily Beast that Eaton, who had held various jobs as a farmer, ski instructor and researcher, had struggled with mental health issues, including depression. But she said he was in “such a good mood” when she saw him on Thanksgiving.
Syracuse police said Eaton’s name appeared in 37 police reports from 2007 until 2021, but never as a suspect. The cases ranged from domestic violence to larceny, and Eaton was listed as either a complainant or victim in 21 reports, according to Lt. Matthew Malinowski, the department’s public information officer.
Sarah George, state’s attorney, said that law enforcement officials do not yet have evidence to support a hate crime charge, which under Vermont law must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But, she said, “I do want to be clear that there is no question that this was a hateful act.”
Demonstrations have been widespread and tensions in the US have escalated as the death toll rises in the Israel-Hamas war. A fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was set to continue for two more days past Monday as 11 more hostages were handed over to the Red Cross in Gaza under what was originally a four-day truce deal.