Burlington, Vermont – With Israel waging war in the Gaza Strip and violence reaching new heights in the occupied West Bank, Hisham Awartani’s family thought he would be safer in the United States.

That’s why, instead of going to the West Bank for Thanksgiving break, the 20-year-old Palestinian student and his two childhood friends decided to spend the US holiday with relatives in the small northeastern state of Vermont.

It’s also why Awartani’s uncle, Rich Price, didn’t think too much of the convoy of police cars that screamed past his house, sirens blaring, on the evening of November 25.

Awartani was supposed to be out of harm’s way in the quaint lakeshore city of Burlington. But a call Price received from his mother that night would remind him of the violence Palestinians face, even abroad.

“Hisham had called her and said, ‘Granny, I’ve been shot,’” Price told Al Jazeera from his dining room, where family photographs line the walls. Large windows look out onto North Prospect, the same street where Awartani and his friends Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ahmad were attacked.

Rich Price stands for a photo in his kitchen in Burlington, Vermont
Rich Price’s nephew and two of his friends were shot a few blocks from Price’s house while visiting Burlington, Vermont [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]

“Their families decided it was safer for them to come to Burlington, Vermont,” Price said. “One of the really difficult things about this is that they came here specifically because we felt this was a safer place for them to be.”

The Palestinian students were wearing keffiyehs and speaking a mixture of Arabic and English when a man stepped off his porch, less than three blocks from Price’s home, and opened fire. All three were injured but survived. Awartani is now paralysed from the chest down.

“He’s doing incredible work and putting a lot of effort into his rehab, and I think it’s difficult. Now he’s back at Brown [University]. He’s having to actually experience what it means to be back on that campus in a wheelchair,” Price said.

The attack didn’t just upend Awartani’s life, though. It also spurred fear across the country, where Palestinians and their supporters said they have faced a barrage of hateful rhetoric since Israel’s military offensive in Gaza began in early October.

According to Price, the dehumanisation of Palestinians in the US is the primary factor that fuelled November’s shooting.

Turquoise hearts with the phrase, 'Neighbors Stand Against Hate', on the front door to Rich Price's house in Burlington, Vermont, US
Hearts with the message ‘Neighbors Stand Against Hate’ are stuck on the front door of Price’s home [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]

“The Palestinian struggle is one that is not told in a balanced way in this country,” he said.

“The rhetoric of people in politics, in positions of leadership — certainly after October 7 — that talked about the struggle as a struggle between good and evil is really dehumanising and dangerous rhetoric.”

That’s a view shared by nearly a dozen community advocates and experts who spoke to Al Jazeera for this story. They detailed how politicians, media outlets and pro-Israel groups have spent years dehumanising and demonising Palestinians — with sometimes deadly results.



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