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

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CHARLESTOWN, Massachusetts – It took Hisham Awartani a while to realize he had been shot after falling to the ground while walking near his grandmother’s house with two friends, Kenan Abdel Hamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmed.

“I didn’t fully comprehend the truth until I looked at my phone and saw that my phone was covered in blood,” said Awartani, who spoke with Abdel Hamid exclusively to NBC News about that night. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve been shot.’

But having grown up in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Palestinians often face violence and aggression, it was not surprising to the 20-year-old American students that something like this would happen to them.

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“It’s strange because it happened in Burlington, Vermont,” Awartani said of the November 25 shooting. “It’s not strange because it happened, just stopped.” “In the West Bank, this is normal. Like many unarmed young men being shot by the Israeli army and left to bleed.”

“So, when it happened to me, it was like, ‘Oh, this is where this is happening,'” he said.

The friends, who described themselves as family, sat down with NBC News in a conference room at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, Massachusetts, where Awartani is receiving treatment. Awartani sat in his wheelchair. Abdul Hamid is next to him on the chair.

Kenan Abdel Hamid and Hisham Awartani (Tony Long for NBC News)

A walk around the building ends in tragedy

Awartani, Abdel Hamid and Ahmed had just returned to Awartani’s grandmother’s house from the bowling alley when they decided to take a walk around the block. The three friends were in Burlington to celebrate Thanksgiving at Awartani’s grandmother’s house.

This was an outing that the three lifelong friends had taken almost more than once. The day before the shooting, they were walking the same route along the street where Awartani’s grandmother’s house was located. Abdul Hamid was wearing… Palestinian scarfIt is a scarf that has become a symbol of Palestinian solidarity.

But on November 25, as they were walking, they saw a man standing on the other side of the road, coming down from the balcony of a house, pulling out a gun and shooting at them. Awartani and Abdul Hamid believe that the man may have seen them before and may have been waiting for them that day.

Abdul Hamid said, “I don’t know why he is carrying a loaded gun and standing on the balcony.”

Awartani and Ahmed were wearing keffiyehs when they were shot, and all three spoke Arabic with occasional English.

Abdul Hamid said that the man pointed the gun at Ahmed first, then Awartani.

“Tahseen was screaming. He was shot first,” Abdul Hamid 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 defended Not guilty to three counts of attempted second-degree murder. Police have not yet revealed the motive behind 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 — did not respond to NBC News’ requests for an update.

They said that there was no doubt in the minds of Abdel Hamid and Awartani that the three were shot because they were Palestinians. They believe what happened to them was a hate crime.

“I don’t think much about whether there are hate crime charges,” Awartani said. “I just care about getting justice. And for me, that’s part of it. But I know it’s a hate crime.”

The house where Eaton was staying when he shot three Palestinian college students.  (Hassan Jamali/AFP)

The house where Eaton was staying when he shot three Palestinian college students. (Hassan Jamali/AFP)

Shooting is part of ‘larger systemic issue’

Abdel Hamid warns against attaching a climate of hatred to one person.

“I think there have been a lot of attempts to completely demonize the man, but we recognize that this is part of a larger systemic issue,” he said.

Rocket explosion in Gaza City (Mahmoud Hams/AFP via Getty Images)

Rocket explosion in Gaza City (Mahmoud Hams/AFP via Getty Images)

“But the truth is that it is a symptom of a larger problem. And the root cause, again, as you said, is systematic dehumanization.”

Abdel Hamid said it was this systematic dehumanization of Palestinians that generated an environment of hatred, which he claims is why Eaton shot them.

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

Abdel Hamid and Awartani have some hope that things will improve in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

“As Palestinians, we are optimistic, but we are not optimistic. Because, I mean, there was no room for optimism for us because the situation has been as it has been all this time,” Awartani said.

Hisham Awartani (Tony Long for NBC News)

Hisham Awartani (Tony Long for NBC News)

“It is one drop in the ocean of what is happening in Palestine.”

Abdel Hamid and Awartani said they did not think about what happened to them that day.

Instead, they think of those suffering in Gaza and the West Bank. More than 24,000 people were killed in Gaza, including more than 10,000 children, during 100 days of Israeli raids, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. The attacks, which left more than 60,000 injured, began after 1,200 people were killed and Hamas took about 240 hostage in a multi-pronged attack on Israel on October 7.

Awartani says that what happened to them is “one drop in the ocean of what is happening in Palestine.”

He added: “What is happening in Palestine is still happening.” “And that’s what’s on my mind now, is how there are still people who are – like, starving to death. There are still people being mutilated. There are still people who – like, you know, don’t have access to clean water. There are still people being shot during protests. So, for me, this is much more important than what happened to me.”

The shooter left a bullet lodged in Awartani’s spine, wounding him Paralysis from the chest down. While he still has a long road to recovery, he is grateful to have access to the care he needs.

“I take solace in the fact that I’m able to receive this care, that I’m able to receive this physical therapy, that I’m able to, you know, go to a good hospital,” he said. “When it makes me think of other people in Gaza who use wheelchairs, who, you know, have been disabled by the bombing.”

Regarding the bullet still stuck in his spine, Awartani says it may pose some new challenges.

“Well, I haven’t gone through TSA yet, but I think this will make it more difficult,” he joked.

Tom Lamas reported from Charleston and Myrna Sharif reported from New York City.

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