US suspect in shooting of three Palestine-origin students pleads not guilty

Jason J. Eaton, 48.

The man who shot three students of Palestinian descent has pleaded not guilty, which is being investigated as a possible hate crime in the US.

Jason J. Eaton, 48, made his initial court appearance by video from jail on three counts of attempted murder, and a plea of not guilty was entered on his behalf on Monday.

He was ordered held without bail for the time being.

The US Department of Justice, along with state law enforcement agencies, were investigating whether Saturday's shooting was a hate crime amid an increase in threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities across the US since Israel's war on besieged Gaza began, Attorney General Merrick Garland said.

"There is understandable fear in communities across the country," he said.

The three men, all age 20, who were spending their Thanksgiving break in Burlington, were walking during a visit to the home of one of the victims' relatives when a white man confronted them with a handgun, police said.

"They stated that the person had not made any comments to them and had merely approached them while they were walking down the street, essentially minding their own business," Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad told reporters.

Two were struck in their torsos, while one was hit in the lower extremities, Murad said.

All three were being treated at University of Vermont Medical Center, and one faces a long recovery because of a spinal injury, a family member said.

The Institute for Middle East Understanding, in a statement from victims' families on X, formerly known as Twitter, identified the men as Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad.

"We are extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of our children," the statement said.

'Not safe in their own country'

The three have been friends since first grade at Ramallah Friends School, a private school in the occupied West Bank, and all are "remarkable, distinguished students, " said Rania Ma'ayeh, head of the school.

Awartani and Abdalhamid are US citizens, while Ali Ahmad is studying on a student visa, Ma'ayeh said.

"Our students are not safe in their own country because of the [Israeli] occupation. They’re studying abroad and have a bright future ahead of them, and look at what happens," she said.

Eaton moved to Burlington over the summer and had 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.

Rich Price, Awartani's uncle, said the gunman "shot them without saying any words" and that the family suspects they were targets of a hate crime.

"The family's fear is that this was motivated by hate, that these young men were targeted because they were Arabs," Price said.

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, Murad said.

Speaking at a news conference, Sarah George, state's attorney, said law enforcement officials do not yet have evidence to support a hate crime enhancement, which under Vermont law must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.


Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who called it "one of the most shocking and disturbing events in the city's history," said he spoke to President Joe Biden on Monday.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the president and First Lady Jill Biden were "horrified" to learn of the shooting.

"There is absolutely no place for violence or hate in America," she said Monday.

Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, also denounced the shooting.

"It is shocking and deeply upsetting that three young Palestinians were shot here in Burlington, Vermont. Hate has no place here or anywhere. I look forward to a full investigation," Sanders said in a statement.

Governor Phil Scott called the shooting a tragedy, calling on the state's residents to unite and "not let this incident incite more hate or divisiveness."

The Vermont-New Hampshire chapter of Jewish Voice For Peace, which has urged an end to Israel's war on besieged Gaza, released a statement saying it was "appalled by the shooting."

"We are in solidarity with the students, their families and all those affected by this clear act of hate," the organisation said Sunday.

"We are in solidarity with all Palestinian people in occupied Palestine, around the world, and here in Vermont — and we are committed to creating a Vermont that is safe and welcoming for all."

Pro-Palestine rallies have been rocking the US since the start of the war, most of which included many Jewish groups.

Israel's war on besieged Gaza has sparked Islamophobic incidents against Arabs and Muslims in the US.

Last month, an Illinois landlord was charged with a hate crime after fatally stabbing a 6-year-old Muslim boy and seriously wounding his mother in suburban Chicago.

Police and relatives said he singled out the victims because of their faith.


Source: TRT