By LISA RATHKE and HOLLY RAMER
BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) -- Far away from the war in Gaza, three students were enjoying another visit to Vermont, celebrating Thanksgiving and a pair of family birthdays. But the place their Palestinian families thought would be safe was anything but.
Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, all age 20, were out for a walk while visiting one of the victims' relatives when a white man with a handgun shot them, police said.
Awartani's uncle, Rich Price, was hosting the young men. His sister lives in the occupied West Bank, and he says people often ask him if he's worried about her and his nephews and niece.
"And the reality is, as difficult as their life is, they are surrounded by an incredible sense of community," Price said. "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 of this country. It speaks to a sickness of gun violence that exists in this country."
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, said Rania Ma'ayeh, head of Ramallah Friends School, a private school in the West Bank where the three met in first grade. They've been friends ever since, Ma'ayeh said, and all are "remarkable, distinguished students."
Awartani and Abdalhamid are U.S. citizens while Ali Ahmad is studying on a student visa, Ma'ayeh said.
"They are all just very, very close friends," said Abdalhamid's uncle, Radi Tamimi, at a news conference Monday in Burlington. 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.
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 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.
The U.S. Department of Justice, along with Vermont authorities, are still investigating whether Saturday's gunfire on a residential Burlington street close to the University of Vermont was a hate crime. Threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities have increased across the U.S. since the Israel-Hamas war began.
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," Price, Awartani's uncle, said.
A vigil was held Monday night at Brown University in Rhode Island, where Awartani, is a student.
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."
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 Leikind, 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.
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 LinkedIn account listed him as having been a financial consultant, organic farmer, and volunteer adaptive skiing instructor. He worked as a carpenter, snowplow operator, farm manager, maintenance technician and farm hand, among other jobs. Two former employers declined comment on Tuesday.
Eaton studied at the University of Idaho in the early 2000s but didn't graduate. A locked X account belonging to Eaton included this description: "Radical citizen pa-trolling demockracy and crapitalism for oathcreepers".
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.
Demonstrations have been widespread and tensions in the U.S. 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.
Associated Press writers Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire; Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington; and David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.