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“Atmosphere of Hate”: AFSC Leader & Palestinian Vermonter on Shooting of 3 College Students

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We get an update on the three university students of Palestinian descent who were shot Saturday in Burlington, Vermont. Two were wearing keffiyehs and speaking Arabic at the time of the attack. Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ahmad are now recovering, though Hisham Awartani, who was shot in the spine, has reportedly lost feeling in the lower part of his body. The FBI is reportedly investigating whether the shooting was a hate crime. “This atmosphere of hate” starts “from the federal level,” declares Wafic Faour of the organization Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, who joins us to discuss the recent history of Vermont’s suppression of pro-Palestinian sentiment. “If you talk about Palestinian rights, you’re going to be called 'terrorist,'” says Faour, yet although “the attacker is a white supremacist, … we don’t call it as is.” We also speak to Joyce Ajlouny, former director of the Ramallah Friends School in the occupied West Bank, where the three victims were students together. She reads poems they wrote in sixth grade and notes that over the course of the decadeslong occupation, “Palestinians of all faiths … have not been offered the humanity and dignity that they deserve.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Burlington, Vermont, where three Palestinian college students were shot on Saturday as they were walking to dinner at the home of one of the students’ grandmothers, who lives near the University of Vermont. Two of the men were wearing keffiyehs, and they were speaking Arabic at the time of the attack. The young men have been identified as Hisham Awartani, a Brown University student; Kinnan Abdalhamid, of Haverford College; and Tahseen Ahmad, a student at Trinity College. They were all 20 years old — they’re all 20 years old and graduates of the Ramallah Friends School in the occupied West Bank. Two of the students remain hospitalized. Hisham Awartani, who was shot in the spine, has reportedly lost feeling in the lower part of his body and may never walk again.

Authorities have charged a 48-year-old white man named Jason Eaton with three counts of second-degree attempted murder. He’s being held without bail. He pleaded not guilty on Monday. He reportedly shot the students from his porch as they walked by. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the FBI is investigating whether the shooting is a hate crime.

The shooting comes just weeks after a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy was stabbed to death near Chicago by his landlord.

Tamara Tamimi, the mother of one of the students, Kinnan Abdalhamid, told ABC News, quote, “To us, it’s decades of dehumanizing policy and rhetoric from U.S. leaders towards Palestinians and Arabs, including from the Biden administration, which has caused our children to be in the situation that they’re in,” unquote.

On Monday, relatives of the men shot in Vermont joined local authorities at a news conference at Burlington City Hall. This is Rich Price, the uncle of the Brown student, Hisham Awartani.

RICH PRICE: We speak only on behalf of the family because the family can’t be here. I want to say that these three young men are incredible. And that’s not just a proud uncle speaking, but it’s true. They are — they have their lives in front of them. …

I moved here 15 years ago, and I never imagined that this sort of thing could happen. And my sister lives in the occupied West Bank, and people often ask me, “Aren’t you worried about your sister? Aren’t you worried about your nephews and your niece?” And the reality is, as difficult as their life is, they are surrounded by incredible sense of community. And “tragic irony” is not even the right phrase, but to have them come stay with me for Thanksgiving and have something like this happen speaks to the level of civic vitriol, 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.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Rich Price, the uncle of Hisham Awartani, one of the three college students of Palestinian descent who were shot Saturday in Burlington, Vermont. And this is Kinnan Abdalhamid’s uncle, Radi Tamimi.

RADI TAMIMI: Kinnan 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, you know, the right decision. And we feel somehow betrayed in that decision here. And, you know, we’re just trying to come to terms with everything.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by two guests. In Burlington, Vermont, Wafic Faour is with us. He’s a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, has lived in Vermont for years. He’s a member of Vermonters for Justice in Palestine. And in Bethesda, Maryland, Joyce Ajlouny is the former director of the Ramallah Friends School, the school where all three of the students shot in Vermont graduated from. She’s now the general secretary of the international Quaker social justice organization American Friends Service Committee. She herself is Palestinian American.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Wafic, you’re in Burlington. Let’s begin with you. Where were you on Saturday when you got the news that three young Palestinian students, all 20 years old, best friends, visiting one of their grandmothers for Thanksgiving, were shot?

WAFIC FAOUR: I was at my house in Richmond. Thank you, Amy, for inviting us. I was at my house. We were organizing many activities and rallies because of what is happening on Palestine and this genocide war against our people over there. Definitely, I was shocked. And our community here are terrified and angry.

But, Amy, we should talk about what brought this atmosphere of hate. And this is a hate crime, and we should call it as is. From the federal level, the actions of Biden administration’s and Secretary of State Blinken and the defense secretary, they’re supporting Israel unconditionally and talking about the Palestinian victims and questioning the numbers of the Palestinian Health Ministry. This is on the federal level. And here in Vermont, for the past two years we have living under siege, too, from attacks from institutions here. When we brought resolution to talk about Palestinian rights, human rights and the protection of the Palestinian people, we found attacks from administrations in UVM, University of Vermont in Middlebury, and, unfortunately, from many faith-based institutions. And they called us antisemitic. And this atmosphere will bring to the American public that if you talk about Palestinian rights, you’re going to be called “terrorist.” If you wear a keffiyeh like this, you’re going to be called “terrorist.” And this is what brought this crime. And it is hate crime. Unfortunately, our leaders here in Vermont didn’t call it as is. And we should call it as is and use the right words.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Wafic, specifically at the press conference that was held on Monday by law enforcement, what do you believe should have been said but was not?

WAFIC FAOUR: Well, I mean, when state attorney Sarah George mentioned it’s a hateful event, but it is not hate crime. I mean, if it happened to another community, it would have been called hate crime immediately. And now they are questioning of the mental capacity of the attacker, when it is — believe me, we feel here if the name of the attacker is an Arab name or a Muslim name, he will be called “terrorist” immediately by the media, and the media will have a field of describing that person. Now the attacker is a white supremacist, and because of the atmosphere and racism against the Muslims, the Arabs and the Palestinians here, in this state and all across United States, we don’t call it as is.

At the same time, the mayor of Burlington, who opposed and he promised to reject and to veto any resolution in our progressive city that calls for Palestinian human rights and our rights as a Palestinian American citizen and our solidarity groups to call — to use our First Amendment and to call for the right of BDS, Boycott, Divestment and Sanction. And that happened a year and a half ago. You cannot have a double standard that attack us because we are activists for the rights of the Palestinians, at the same time when something like this, you just bring sorrow and mourning and defend yourself and where you stand. You have to stand with people justice regardless, and you have to be the mayor of all the citizens.

And I call for the Burlington councilmembers to bring a stronger resolution, and mainly for ceasefire now. You know, the Palestinians are dying. And we are working to stop this genocide over there. And we have — our local leaders, they have responsibility to support our solidarity group and the people in Vermont and Burlington.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you — the mother of one of the injured young men, Hisham Awartani, his mother, Elizabeth Price, has been trying to leave Ramallah and travel to the U.S. to see her son. Is there any news about whether she’ll be able to come?

WAFIC FAOUR: I don’t know. I heard that she’s coming. I saw a statement about that. I don’t know if she’s on her way already. I know a sister, and her husband, of another victim is here. I am in contact with the stepfather of another victim, and he told me his health is improving now.

But we have to take this crime as example of what we feel and what we are experiencing here. We stand by those victims. But at the same time, I have to talk to you about the fear and the anger of our community here in Vermont, the Palestinian and the Arab Muslim community in particular, and our solidarity groups and young students who getting attacked by UVM administrations and a year and a half ago from Middlebury administration, too.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get to that, but I want to bring in Joyce Ajlouny into the conversation, former director of the Ramallah Friends School, the school where all three boys went to school in Ramallah. She’s now the general secretary of American Friends Service Committee, joining us from Virginia [sic]. Can you talk about where they went to school? These were three best friends, now 20 years old. I think you’re muted.

JOYCE AJLOUNY: Terribly sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Perfect.

JOYCE AJLOUNY: Yes, Amy. Thank you for having me.

As you were speaking to Wafic, I received a message from Ali Awartani and Elizabeth Price. They’re saying they’re on their way to America — just to answer your question about if they are planning to come. They are en route, traveling to be with Hisham.

AMY GOODMAN: And I should correct that you’re in Bethesda, Maryland. Sorry, I said Virginia.

JOYCE AJLOUNY: I am.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

JOYCE AJLOUNY: No worries. That’s close enough.

Yes, the Ramallah Friends School was established in 1869 by Quaker missionaries. It’s a phenomenal place. I’m a graduate of the school myself. My grandmother, who was a Palestinian Quaker, graduated from there in the 1920s. So, this is a proud place for many of us. And not that it’s educationally and academically superior than IP education, kindergarten through 12th grade, but it’s also the Quaker values and the foundations of peace and nonviolence and teaching tolerance and service and integrity, conflict resolution, emphasizing dialogue and inquiry. That is what the school is about. And the track record is phenomenal when we look at our graduates and what they are up to. I think graduates say that they are who they are because of the Ramallah Friends School. So it is a phenomenal place that has transformed the lives of many throughout generations. So I know that Hisham, Kinnan and Tahseen are proud alums.

And, you know, I think that they’re getting together as most of us are, Palestinian Americans here. I also want to share that three of them are Palestinian Americans. And so, sometimes that’s dropped from the news, that two of them are actually American citizens. And so, they are gathered. They gather together to provide solace for each other and just vent sometimes, and it’s therapy to come together. And unfortunately, they have witnessed this horrific, horrific crime in the midst of them coming together to comfort each other. And I think that is what has happened, unfortunately, this time.

AMY GOODMAN: You posted on Facebook their poems, Tahseen’s poem, as well as Hisham. I’m wondering if you could read them for us? How old were they? Like in sixth grade?

JOYCE AJLOUNY: They were in sixth grade. I had the privilege of being the head of school when they were in middle school. And so, the librarian, actually, dug those up. And I will read Hisham’s poem, sixth grade Hisham, who now goes to Brown — by the way, brilliant students, all of them, accomplished, top-notch, value-driven.

I wanted to say, maybe, Amy, before I read his poem, that’s how selfless our students are. You know, Hisham wrote to his professor at Brown — and I want to quote him — he said, “It’s important to recognize that this is part of the larger story. The serious 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 a much wider conflict.” And then Hisham goes on to say to his professor that “This is why, when you say your wishes and light your candles today, you should mind — your mind should not just be focused on me as an individual, but rather a proud member of a people being oppressed.” And so, these are his words since the shooting.

When he was in sixth grade in 2015, he wrote — that’s Hisham Awartani:

“Hope dwells in my heart
It shines like a light in darkness
[This] light cannot be smothered
It cannot be drowned out by tears and the screams of the wounded
It only grows in strength
This light can outshine hate
This light can outshine injustice
It outshines segregation and apartheid
As of Greek legend, Pandora opened a box
And when she did that, all the evil escaped
But luckily, Pandora closed the jar before hope could escape
And as long as hope stayed in that jar
Hope would never escape
So I ask you one thing, learn from that story
Learn to never give up hope
Learn to let hope give power
In the darkest of times
And let the light shine.”

AMY GOODMAN: Wow! Hisham in sixth grade.

JOYCE AJLOUNY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And how about Tahseen?

JOYCE AJLOUNY: Tahseen, there are two poems. I want to read one, which depicts where our students are coming from, that they are coming from living under a brutal occupation apartheid system that agonizes them, that traumatizes them day in and day out, children, sixth-graders. So, Tahseen writes:

“My ears are pounding
Children dying
Mothers crying
Authorities lying
My ears are pounding
My ears are pounding
Missiles destroying
Bombs exploding
Bullets killing
My ears are pounding
Press careless
Dreams traceless
Lands ownerless
My ears are pounding
Kids without mothers
Beds without covers
Palestine without others
My ears are pounding
My ears are pounding
There is one sound I heard
Not from a breeze or a bird
The sound of darkness
My ears are pounding
My ears are pounding
I’d rather be deaf.”

So, that says a lot. That says a lot about where we are at today in the story of the Palestinian struggle, which is often depicted as that this all started on October 7th. And so, this is 2015. And they are — when you read this poem, you feel like you’re reading it about today, about our people in Gaza and what they are going through, and yet this was eight years ago. So, the struggle continues.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And —

JOYCE AJLOUNY: Yeah. Go ahead.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Joyce, I wanted to ask you if you could comment on the tragic irony that the families of the victims have said in various interviews that they thought that the U.S. would be a safer place for their children than the West Bank, and then to have this terrible tragedy occur here.

JOYCE AJLOUNY: Yes, of course. I mean, I think that is the absolute truth. You know, I know that a large number of Palestinian students from the Ramallah Friends School attend U.S. colleges. And they’re actually very sought after. And when they come here, the parents know that they are keeping them away from being subjected to violence from not just the Israeli military but the Israeli settlers. I have a 31-year-old son there now, and I worry about his safety. The settlers have been emboldened, and there’s violence there every day. And you wonder. You know, you send them here, and then they — this keffiyeh has now become a symbol, instead of our struggle, instead of a symbol of our tradition, our traditional dress and our struggle, this is now being painted and tainted as a symbol of violence. And so, I have another son in Washington, D.C. He doesn’t leave home without his keffiyeh. I worry about him, too. So, that is where we’re at right now.

And I can’t but agree with Wafic about the dehumanization that has been taking place. And this is not new. You know, Palestinians are — you know, even in our grief, we are depicted as Palestinians “dying” — right? — while Israelis are being “killed” and “massacred.” So language really matters. And I think that is what we have seen time and time again. You know, 47 children died on the West Bank between January and August of this year, way before this war started. And I wonder, like, who cried for them. Who mourned them? Where was the U.S. mainstream media talking about them? And so, it’s not just the language. It’s also the framing — right? — that this is the worst attack since the Holocaust, painting Palestinians as Jew haters, as that this is a religious struggle rather than a people seeking freedom, seeking liberation from a settler colonial system, and remembering, you know, that Palestinians of all faiths are in the same struggle, as well, and they have not been offered the humanity and the dignity that they deserve. And so, I think this is all — this is manifest due to the continued dehumanization, not only by the media but by our government, you know, as Wafic said, that they continue to turn a blind eye. They’re not calling for a ceasefire. They continue to embolden the Israeli atrocities by sending more aid, doubling their aid, and supporting the genocide of our people. And so, that is truly the reason why this is happening.

I just wanted to also take the opportunity, you know, we’re doing the — there’s this exchange of hostages. And when they talk about that, they talk about Israelis released the children — the Israelis released are “children,” while the Palestinians who are released are “teenagers,” so children versus teenagers. You know, in my book, they’re all hostages. The fact that the media is not talking about the 3,000 Palestinians who have been kidnapped, basically, since October 10th and put in Israeli jails, and they’re calling them — they’re not prisoners. To them, they are bargaining chips — right? — that they will use in exchange. But, to us, they are hostages, just like the hostages that are held in Gaza. And so, that is the narrative that is being talked about day in and day out. And people who have sentiments that are anti-Arab, anti-Muslim are emboldened by all of that and take action, like Jason Eaton, who felt emboldened because no is portraying Palestinians as human beings that deserve the dignity and the respect that everyone else should be — that everyone else is granted.

AMY GOODMAN: Jason Eaton, of course, is the alleged shooter —

JOYCE AJLOUNY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — of the three Palestinian young men. I want to thank you, Joyce Ajlouny, the former director of the Ramallah Friends School, where they all went to school in the occupied West Bank, all three students shot in Burlington, Vermont, on Friday. Joyce is also now the general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee. And I want to thank Wafic Faour, a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, member of Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, speaking to us from Burlington.

And this final note: Speaking about the Vermont representatives, you have Becca Balint, who is the first Jewish congressmember to call for a ceasefire. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has not called for a ceasefire but has called for conditions on U.S. aid to Israel. He said, quote, “While Israel has the right to go after Hamas, Netanyahu’s right-wing extremist government does not have the right to wage almost total warfare against the Palestinian people.”

Coming up, we speak to prize-winning investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill about Israel’s propaganda war over Al-Shifa Hospital and what’s underneath it. Who built what’s under Shifa Hospital? Back in 20 seconds.

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Jeremy Scahill: Israel’s “Lethal Lie” About Al-Shifa Hospital as Hamas Base Was Co-Signed by Biden

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