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Resumed Bombing of Gaza Will Be Crushing to Palestinian Students Shot in Vermont, Says Victim’s Mother

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We speak with the mother of Hisham Awartani, one of the three 20-year-old Palestinian college students who were shot last weekend in Burlington, Vermont, in a suspected hate crime. Elizabeth Price traveled from her home in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank to see her son, who is still hospitalized in Burlington. He was shot in the spine and, while in stable condition, now faces an immediate loss of mobility. Price shares how her son’s “resilience” and “brotherhood” with his childhood best friends who are the other survivors of the shooting, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, have been an integral part of his recovery. She also emphasizes that had Awartani been shot in Palestine, “he would have been dead in prison or thrown somewhere in a medical facility without the support to recover from this.” We also discuss life under occupation in the West Bank, U.S. displays of solidarity with Palestinians, and the media narrative surrounding the shooter’s motives. Of the three young men’s commitment to highlighting the larger picture of Israeli oppression of Palestine, Price says that “the fact that the Israelis have started bombarding again in the Gaza Strip is something that will crush them more than their injuries.”

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StoryNov 28, 2023“Atmosphere of Hate”: AFSC Leader & Palestinian Vermonter on Shooting of 3 College Students
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We turn now to Vermont, where family members of three Palestinian college students shot in Burlington Saturday night are arriving to care for their sons, who they say were targeted simply for being Palestinian. In a minute, we’ll speak with the mother of Hisham Awartani. He was shot in the spine when he took a walk with his friends Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad after they visited relatives while staying in Hisham’s grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving break. All three have been friends since the first grade at the Ramallah Friends School in the West Bank. Two of them were wearing keffiyehs, the symbol of Palestinian pride, when they were shot. Their alleged attacker, Jason Eaton, has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder. Authorities have not yet added a hate crime enhancement to his charges.

The Associated Press reports Eaton had a history of domestic disputes that led police to confiscate his shotgun a decade ago. NBC News reported Tuesday that another ex-girlfriend told police in 2019 Eaton had continued calling and texting her and driving by her house after she had made it clear she didn’t want to communicate with him, and she had considered filing a restraining order. So often mass shooters have abused women in their past.

At a vigil Monday on the campus of Brown University, where Hisham Awartani is a student, professor Beshara Doumani, the Mahmoud Darwish professor of Palestinian studies, read a statement from Hisham.

BESHARA DOUMANI: “I would like to start out by saying that I greatly appreciate all the love and prayers being sent my way. Who knew that all I had to do to become famous was to get shot? … And as much as I appreciate the love [from] every single one of you here today, I am but one casualty in this much wider conflict. Had I been shot in the West Bank where I grew up, the medical services which saved my life here would likely have been withheld by the Israeli Army.”

VIGILERS: Shame!

BESHARA DOUMANI: “The soldier who would’ve shot me would go home and never be convicted.”

VIGILERS: Shame!

BESHARA DOUMANI: “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. This is why when you send your wishes and light your candles for me today, your mind should not just be focused on me as an individual but rather as a proud member of a people being oppressed.”

AMY GOODMAN: That statement from Hisham Awartani was read at a vigil Monday night at Brown University’s campus, where he’s a student.

Hisham’s mother, Elizabeth Price, joins us now from Burlington after traveling from her home in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank to be with her son in the hospital.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Elizabeth. I’m so sorry you’re here under these circumstances. Can you talk about how Hisham is doing and his friends, the two other Palestinian students shot on Saturday night?

ELIZABETH PRICE: Hisham makes me so proud. I mean, he was lying in his bed, paralyzed from the chest down, in great pain from broken bones, and in shock and traumatized, and he typed out that statement to be read out to a vigil. And I was so impressed with his ability to focus on others during that, in this time of his life being devastated.

He is in stable condition. He is going to be transferred to a rehabilitation center so that he can live to learn — learn to live with his injuries, and then also, hopefully and definitely, return on a path towards full mobility, we hope. His other friends are also stable. One has been discharged from the hospital but is severely traumatized. You know, he spent 45 minutes thinking that his friends had been shot dead. And then, a third, the third child, or the third young man — because they are children to me since they grew up in my house — is stable and working towards discharge.

But they are all traumatized, and they are all feeling grateful to be alive and feeling the bitterness of the fact that they are receiving such attention and such support and such incredible medical services from the Burlington community in the Burlington medical facility while at the same time people are dying under the bombs of the Israeli bombardment. I mean, the fact that the Israelis have started bombarding again the Gaza Strip is something that will crush them more than their injuries have crushed them.

My son said that when he went through the list of those who had died under the Israeli bombardment a few weeks ago, he found that there were 30 that had his name, Hisham. And he has said in another statement to a Brown newspaper — he says to remember, like he said in the vigil, “I am the Hisham you know.” And I think that he just really wants people to be thinking about the Palestinians who are dying by the tens of thousands right now, and not to be focusing on him. And I think this is something that he and his — this is a sentiment that is shared by his friends, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering if you can tell us — although he wants to talk about himself as, as he said, a member of an oppressed community; think of all of the people who don’t get help when they’re shot right now in Gaza and the West Bank. But if you could tell us about Hisham? He’s Palestinian, Irish American? Is that right?

ELIZABETH PRICE: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty years old, a junior at Brown?

ELIZABETH PRICE: Yes, yes. So, Hisham was born in America and is a devoted Giants fan. He grew up in Palestine. He’s an Irish citizen because I was born in Ireland, and he’s Palestinian because his father is Palestinian. And he’s a — you know, grew up in Palestine. He is a born mathematician. He has mathematics in his family. He once said to me that just numbers make him happy. And he is the type of person who — he’s a polymath. He’s a polyglot. You know, he speaks Arabic and English —

AMY GOODMAN: What languages does he speak?

ELIZABETH PRICE: Arabic and English fluently. He’s studying — he’s very good at Persian right now, because he’s been taking Persian. He took cuneiform in college, so he, you know, can write in an extinct language. He has studied Hebrew and German and French in high school, and he is currently studying Spanish and Italian at Brown.

And he is doing a BSc in pure mathematics at college. He went in as a math student. And then, when he took a course in archaeology, he was just hit by a bug for archaeology — bitten by the bug of archaeology. Now he’s doing a BSc in math and a BA in archaeology. Not really quite sure how those two things go together, but Hisham has the ability to just suck in information, create this incredible database of knowledge that he can make, quite rapidly, connections with, and then come out with a conclusion that he shares with people. I mean, he’s a computer, in his brain. And yet, at the same time, he’s very soulful and very philosophical.

And I think in the last few days — I mean, this hasn’t even been a week since this happened to him. In the last few days, I have really understood how Hisham has the ability to have his soul and his heart encompass his people and for him to be able to contextualize the suffering that he’s had within what is something that he sees as a valid and — the dignity of his people. So, I think that is giving him great comfort. There is an Arabic word, sumud, which means resilience. It’s about the concept of existence being resistance, staying on your land no matter what. And Hisham, for me, signifies and symbolizes that concept. He is like an olive tree, that he can get cut down, but he will regrow. And that is where he gets the strength to be thinking about other people and about his people even while he lies in a bed unable to move.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I think we can also see where he gets his spirit: from you, Elizabeth. And his —

ELIZABETH PRICE: I’m lucky to be his mother. I am blessed to be his mother. I am so privileged to have gotten to know him in my life.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about them growing up in the Ramallah Friends School? We spoke with the head of the school, who’s now head of the whole American Friends Service Committee in the United States, Joyce Ajlouny. Talk about his experience growing up in Ramallah, where you live, and going to this Quaker school.

ELIZABETH PRICE: Well, I mean, life in Ramallah and life in Palestine is a beautiful thing. Obviously, we live under military occupation, and so, you know, people are killed every day, and often they are children. And children are arrested, and people are arrested. And often the school goes on strike because — in solidarity with the news of someone being killed by the Israeli army. So, it’s a life where you know when the school goes on strike, that someone has lost their life. And the walls of the streets around the school are filled with pictures of people who have been killed, in memory of them.

But Ramallah, and Palestine, is a place of family and community. It’s a place where everyone knows each other, and we feel safe. My daughter, who is 17, can walk home late at night in safety, because everyone respects the other and sees the other as a member of a larger society or community or family. And so you’re never alone, and you’re always — everyone acts to take care of each other.

So, these boys grew up together. They did Model United Nations. They talked, and they did math club, and they did chess club. And they would come to my house on a Saturday afternoon, like giraffes, you know, as they grew up over the years, and they would duck under my threshold and sprawl over on my couches, and I would make them food. And then they would cram themselves into Hisham’s tiny room, and they would just talk about philosophy and politics and language and then just talk about — you know, just joke with each other.

And then, when they were receiving their college results for those who had applied to American colleges, you get the results at like 3:00 in the morning in Palestine, so they would stay up together, and they would be on the phone to each other, and they would be there for each other. So, as the one person up opened their email, and if it was good news, they would celebrate; it was bad news, they would commiserate. And so, that helped them survive so much. And the three boys who you mentioned, Hisham and his two friends, are like brothers. And I think that that has been so important for them.

After they were shot, they were kept in the same ICU room for a number of days by the hospital, because the hospital recognized that the proximity meant that they could be with each other and give each other strength. Kinnan, who has been released, was the least hurt, but was deeply, deeply traumatized by the experience that he went through when he thought that his friends had been killed. And so, by keeping him, even though he could be released, with the boys, the hospital was able to give them that comfort of being with each other and having that camaraderie and that brotherhood sustain them in the time where they were just trying to come to grips with the hatred that had been shown to them, the devastation of their lives and the crippling of my son.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a report from NBC. At one event at Brown, 20 students were arrested by university police and charged with trespassing after they refused to leave a sit-in outside Brown President Christina Paxson’s office. A friend of Hisham’s, Daniel Newgarden, said that Hisham had attended a Shabbat dinner with some of the Jewish students who had been arrested during the sit-in, and that they got together each Friday afterward. And they talked about the alliance between Jews and Palestinians, who they saw increasingly anxious after October 7th, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH PRICE: Yes. Hisham did notify Brown that he felt unsafe on campus. I hadn’t realized that. Hisham often wouldn’t tell me things. He was so busy with his life, doing five course and 20 hours of work. But he did feel anxious. He was active.

And I have to tell you that when we heard about that sit-in by the Jewish students, we were moved. There has been such an incredible outpouring of support by Jewish activists in America. The concept of the Grand Central Station sit-in was something that reverberated around Palestine and really lifted our hearts. And then, when Hisham sent me a picture of him at Shabbat dinner with these young people, I just felt like he was in the right community.

I mean, when this type of thing happens, when Palestinians are so traumatized and so abused by the international community and the ignoring of their rights, my children learned over this last seven weeks what it is to be on the wrong side of justice. And I think for definitely my daughter and definitely Hisham, it opened their eyes up to what it is to be a part of an oppressed community, and the opportunity for solidarity across that.

Jewish people have been targeted for centuries by antisemitism. The other minorities in America, the Native Americans have been in solidarity with the Palestinians. Black Americans, so many different minorities have reached out and been in — stood in solidarity with the Palestinians. And I think that that’s the life that I want my children to experience, to live in a community where they know and fight for the — against the injustice that others suffer, and that they know that the others are standing with them in the injustice — against the injustice that the Palestinians suffer. So, that Shabbat dinner gave me great joy when I heard about it.

AMY GOODMAN: People can go to Democracy Now! and see — we were there at the Grand Central protest, hundreds of Jews arrested as they shut down Grand Central Station on a Sabbath night, on a Friday night. If you can say what the doctors are saying right now, Elizabeth? Hisham has a bullet lodged in his spine. He also — his thumb — what else is —

ELIZABETH PRICE: So, Hisham, from what I understand, he must have had his hand up when he was shot, and so the bullet went through his thumb into his clavicle. And then I think it may have ricocheted against his scapula. It broke a — I think it touched a rib, and then it went into the T2 of his spine. So, from what I understand, that trajectory and that passage meant that the bones slowed down the bullet, which is very lucky, because I think the bullet would have severed his spine. So, currently the bullet has lodged there, and there’s concussive impact, which has meant that Hisham has lost the sensation of pain and temperature, but he can feel pressure from his mid-torso downward. So Hisham has to go through a long process of physical therapy to be able to regain the control of his muscles down there.

In the short term, I believe that he will be able to learn how to live with that. He’ll be given the — he’ll be taught how to live with his disability. And our long-term plan is to support him to be able to regain motion, functional motion in all of his body. But my son has an incredible mind and an incredible soul. And he is already — the doctors say that it’s hard sometimes to get people to engage with their new situation, and Hisham has been asking questions and inquiring and just taking control of it all with his curiosity and taking information so he can process it. So, he’s tired, and it’s a long — the next step is — the next phase is going to be a very long process, but he’s very determined, and he’s brilliant and curious. And I think — I know that he’ll be a success in no matter what he does.

AMY GOODMAN: He was shot in Vermont. There’s a three-member Vermont congressional delegation. You’ve got Becca Balint, the first Jewish American congressmember to call for a ceasefire. Peter Welch just joined her, the Vermont senator. And Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders,, while he has not called for a ceasefire, he has called for aid to Israel to be conditioned on what’s happening in the West Bank and what’s happening in Gaza. Your final thoughts on what you’re calling for now, Elizabeth, as your son lies in the ICU?

ELIZABETH PRICE: Thank you. I think one of the things that I really want to emphasize is that there should be — it would be irresponsible for there to be any discussion of the mental health status of the perpetrator. There are millions of people suffering with mental health issues, and it is disrespectful to them to imply that mental health is something that leads to gun violence. There are millions of people in America with mental health who do not pick up a gun and shoot. And it is irresponsible to victimize the shooter in this case. So, any discussion of what his mental state was or his emotional state was is irresponsible. It’s also a double standard. It is often applied to white perpetrators of shooting crimes, but not to those who are nonwhite or of different backgrounds, and particularly of minority backgrounds. And so I consider that to be unacceptable. And recent statements by the media that have highlighted that have — they broke me last night. And I find that incredibly offensive, that people would victimize the shooter.

I would also say that it is time to call for ceasefire. The fact that the bombs started falling on Gaza again today crushed me. I celebrated Becca Balint’s stance, and I applaud and I’m so grateful for Peter Welch’s statement of an unconditional ceasefire. The Palestinian people in Gaza have been brutalized by not just the bombardment, by the fact that they haven’t had — they didn’t have food, water or fuel for weeks. They just sat there and died. And I just — I was in deep depression and mourning for seven weeks, even before this happened to my son.

And my son would be, I think, redeemed in his suffering if he knew that, in any way, in any small way, attention brought to the Palestinian people through his plight helped to make the decision makers in the American government recognize that Palestinians are humans and Palestinians deserve to live, and if one more Palestinian child dies or is injured in the way that my son was injured, it is a travesty that this world should not have to live with. My son is receiving attention and the best medical care in America. If he was in Gaza or if he was in the West Bank, he would have been dead in prison or just thrown somewhere in a medical facility without the support he would need to be able to recover from this. So I am incredibly privileged, and as is my son, that he has been hurt here amongst this community who have supported us and provided us with the medical care, where he is seen as a valid human being. And I think, in my son’s name, I call for all the decision makers and policymakers in the American government to recognize the Palestinian children in Gaza and the West Bank and in Jerusalem are also human and deserve the dignity and the support that my son is being provided with. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Elizabeth Price, we thank you so much for being with us, mother of Hisham.

ELIZABETH PRICE: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Please give him all of our regards, one of the three Palestinian students shot by a white man while visiting their family in Burlington, Vermont, this past weekend, Elizabeth Price joining us from Burlington after traveling from Ramallah in the occupied West Bank — so did his father — to be at Hisham’s side.

Coming up, human rights attorney, war crimes prosecutor Reed Brody on the death of Henry Kissinger. Back in 20 seconds.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Haunted” by Shane MacGowan and The Popes, featuring Sinéad O’Connor. Irish iconoclast frontman for The Pogues, the ever-complicated Shane MacGowan passed away at the age of 65 Thursday.

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