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What we know about the shooting of 3 Palestinian American college students

Authorities are investigating whether the shooting was a potential hate crime.

Three young men with dark hair and wearing keffiyeh black and white Palestinian scarves stand with their arms around each others’ shoulders.
Three Palestinian American college students — from left, Tahseen Ali Ahmad, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Hisham Awartani — were shot in Vermont this past weekend.
Institute for Middle East Understanding
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

On Saturday, three college students of Palestinian descent were shot in Burlington, Vermont, an incident authorities are now investigating as a possible hate crime. The shooting took place as fears have grown about rising anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim sentiment, as well as rising antisemitism, amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.

Following the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 and the subsequent Israeli military onslaught on Gaza, civil rights groups have expressed concerns about an uptick in reports of assault, verbal harassment, and intimidation targeting Muslim and Arab Americans as well as Jewish Americans. As Vox’s Fabiola Cineas previously reported, the FBI has yet to release updated hate crime figures documenting these trends, but organizations including the pro-Israel group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Muslim advocacy organization the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) have chronicled an increase in incidents of harassment and threats targeting Jewish Americans and Muslim Americans since this past October.

[Related: “History repeating itself”: How the Israel-Hamas war is fueling hate against Muslims and Jews]

CAIR is among the groups that have called on law enforcement to review whether bias played a role in the college students’ shootings in Vermont. “We encourage law enforcement to file state and federal hate crime charges if the evidence confirms that anti-Palestinian racism motivated this attack,” the organization’s executive director Nihad Awad said in a statement. “We also call on elected officials to reject and condemn the rise in anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Palestinian racism that has led to hate crimes.”

The 20-year-old students — Hisham Awartani of Brown University, Kinnan Abdalhamid of Haverford College, and Tahseen Ahmed of Trinity College — were walking down a major street in Burlington on their way to visit a relative of one the men for the Thanksgiving holiday when they were “confronted by a white male with a handgun,” according to police. Police stated that the man, without speaking, shot two of the students in the torso and one in the lower extremities. Two of the victims are now in stable condition, while the third is in more serious condition. Sunday, police arrested 48-year-old Jason Eaton for the crime, though they have yet to reveal more information about his possible motive. On Monday, Eaton pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder; the judge ordered that he be held without bail.

The three students were speaking in English and Arabic while they were walking, they told family members, according to the New York Times. Police added that two of the students were wearing keffiyehs, traditional black and white scarves often used to symbolize Palestinian identity and solidarity. Two of the students are US citizens and the third is a legal resident.

“In this charged moment, no one can look at this incident and not suspect that it may have been a hate-motivated crime,” Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said in a statement. “And I have already been in touch with federal investigatory and prosecutorial partners to prepare for that if it’s proven.”

Civil rights groups worry about an increase in hate crimes

Civil rights groups have emphasized calls for authorities to examine potential bias in this attack, as has an attorney for the three students. “The suspect walked up to them and shot them. They weren’t robbed, they weren’t mugged,” Abed Ayoub, an attorney for the families of the victims, told CNN, noting that they may have been targeted because two of the students were wearing keffiyehs.

Concern about rising anti-Muslim and antisemitic sentiment has increased during the ongoing violence in the Israel-Gaza war. CAIR says it received 1,283 reports of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias or calls for help in the month following the October 7 Hamas attack. That’s a large increase compared to the 406 complaints the group previously received, on average, over 29-day periods in 2022. The ADL also said it documented 832 incidents of antisemitism including assault, vandalism, and harassment between October 7 and November 7. This was also a large increase from the 200 incidents the group documented in the same time frame in 2022.

One fatal incident that law enforcement has tied to the war was the killing of 6-year-old Wadea al-Fayoume, a Palestinian American boy living in the Chicago area. Al-Fayoume was stabbed to death by his family’s landlord “due to them being Muslim and the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis,” police said. Al-Fayoume’s killing, as well as the nonfatal stabbing of his mother, prompted attendees of his funeral to caution political leaders and news outlets about their use of hateful rhetoric. Al-Fayoume’s 71-year-old landlord was charged with murder, attempted murder, and hate crimes, and remains jailed as he awaits his next pretrial date.

As experts previously told Cineas, the uptick in violence is likely tied to the idea of “scapegoat theory,” when marginalized groups are blamed for societal events. This dynamic has been evident throughout US history — including when Asian Americans were scapegoated for the spread of Covid-19 and its origins in China, as well as when Muslims, Arab Americans, and South Asian Americans were scapegoated following the 9/11 attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda, a terrorist group with leaders based in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“When these kinds of world events take place, whether here or abroad, people feel strongly about them. And when people have strong beliefs, they act out. They look at people in their neighborhoods and blame them for what is happening in the Middle East, or they blame all Asian people for what started in Wuhan, China,” Frank S. Pezzella, an associate professor of criminal justice at John Jay College and author of the book Hate Crimes Statutes: A Public Policy and Law Enforcement Dilemma, told Cineas.

Some civil rights activists have said they fear the same Islamophobia that took hold after 9/11 could rise again. In 2001, FBI data captured a major spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes following the terrorist attacks. “I personally have been through this — I was 21 or 22 in Boston when 9/11 happened,” Palestinian rights advocate Laila El-Haddad told NBC News. “This feels like that, but almost a more dystopian version of that.”

Experts also told Cineas that past Middle Eastern conflicts have contributed to increases in antisemitic attacks and harassment. In 2000, for example, there was an uptick in anti-Jewish hate crimes during a series of mass protests by Palestinians criticizing Israel’s governance. Antisemitic hate crimes have also increased in the year prior to the latest Israel-Hamas escalation, according to FBI data.

The shooter’s motive is not yet clear, and the investigation into the shooting continues. However, many civil rights groups continue to warn that the violent incident in Vermont this weekend could be a byproduct of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hostility that has surged during the Israel-Hamas war. And they note that further acts of violence could result from the prejudice that the war and associated political rhetoric is helping to resurface.

“Given the information collected and provided, it is clear that the hate was a motivating factor in this shooting, and we call on law enforcement to investigate it as such,” the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee said in a statement. “The surge in anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian sentiment we are experiencing is unprecedented, and this is another example of that hate turning violent.”

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