“I am just another victim in this much wider conflict.” From the hospital’s intensive care unit where he is being treated, Hisham Awartani sent these words on Monday to pro-Palestinian associations at Brown University, where he is studying.
20-year-old American-Palestinian Awartani was shot in the spine two days earlier. But this is not an isolated incident. His testimony is a reminder of Palestinians's plight in Gaza and occupied territories: “When you take your vows and light your candles today [as part of the vigil held at Brown University on Monday], you shouldn’t focus on me as an individual, but rather as a proud member of an oppressed people.”
On Saturday evening, in Vermont [north-eastern USA], his attack, suspected of being a hate crime linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shook the web. For Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, three friends and students of Palestinian origin — the first two are American citizens, the third a legal resident — the night was supposed to be festive, but the attacker decided otherwise. The three young men had just returned from bowling and were preparing to spend Thanksgiving at one of their relatives’ place in Burlington, a town close to the Canadian border. In the courtyard of the house, “a white man armed with a pistol … without speaking to them, fired at least four bullets before fleeing, presumably on foot,” AFP quoted the local police.
At the time of the attack, two of them were wearing kufiyyehs, while the three were conversing in Arabic. Placed in the ICU, the three victims should recover, according to medical services, while Awartani’s injury requires “a long convalescence.”
The attack sparked an outcry by a part of the public, who felt that the young men had been targeted because of their community affiliation. Arrested on Sunday, the 48-year-old suspect pleaded not guilty to attempted murder the following day before being detained without bail.
“At the moment we don’t know if that was a hate motivated incident. Certainly there are indicators that this was the case, but we’re waiting for the police to confirm,” said says Corey Saylor, director of research and advocacy at the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based civil rights organization.
While the Burlington police chief said he did not yet have any evidence to suggest a motive, he said on Sunday that “ no one can look at this incident and not suspect that it may have been a hate-motivated crime,” in reference to the current tense context of the war waged by Israel in Gaza in response to Hamas’s incursion into Israeli territory on Oct. 7.
The following day, US President Joe Biden said in a statement, “The President, the First Lady and everyone here at the White House join Americans across the country in praying for their full recovery, and we send our deepest condolences to their families.” “While we are waiting for more facts, we know this: There is absolutely — absolutely no place for violence or hate in America.”
This attack comes in a context of sharp rise in Islamophobic acts in the US over the last month and a half. “The number is pretty shocking and unprecedented,” said Saylor. “So since Oct. 7, we reported Intaking 1283 requests for help and reports of bias between Oct.7 and Nov.4, four weeks later. So in less than one month, we received about 25 percent of the complaints that we received in the entirety of 2022.”
As elsewhere in the West, the war between Israel and Hamas was exported to American soil. Almost a week later, on Oct. 15, the murder of an American-Palestinian boy who had just celebrated his sixth birthday shocked the country. Before stabbing the boy 26 times and seriously injuring his mother, the 71-year-old assailant, who owns the house they rented, reportedly shouted: “You Muslims must die!”
This is hatred that no longer disguises itself. The repercussions of the war have not failed to provide fertile ground in Western countries, and have quickly deepened the divisions within the political class and on American university campuses. Far from being just a division between pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians, these cleavages have given rise to a resurgence of anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and anti-Arab acts in the US, raising fear among these populations of being targeted because of their religion or origin.
But while anti-Semitic acts have been widely publicized in the country, Americans of Arab origin or of Muslim faith insist that attacks against them are just as systemic. “Islamophobia is quite latent in the US public. It just really takes something to flip the switch back to on,” said Saylor. “We’ve seen a number of Islamophobic tropes deployed over the last month, those Islamophobic tropes often overlap with anti-Arab tropes.”
Over the past few weeks, a feeling has resurfaced among the latter: The fear of being subjected to the same level of hatred as after 9/11 or the war in Iraq, and the fear of being seen as second-class citizens.
“But America betrayed me. Betrayed us all, in fact,” Radi Tamimi, Kinnan Abdalhamid’s uncle, said on his Instagram account. “Every single American citizen, regardless of race or ethnicity, should be absolutely outraged at the divisive climate that’s been created through the vitriolic language, dehumanizing portrayals and outright lies about Palestinians and other groups by both American leadership and the media for the past few months - few years - few decades.”
These discriminatory remarks can also be found in US political discourse. In a speech to a Republican Jewish convention on Oct. 28, former President and candidate in the 2024 presidential election Donald Trump promised to re-impose the Muslim Ban if re-elected — a decree which, with a few exceptions, closed American borders to citizens from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia.
Less than a month later, on Nov. 22, Stuart Seldowitz, a former senior US official under Barack Obama’s administration, was arrested by the New York police for racially motivated harassment after being filmed repeatedly verbally abusing a young man of Egyptian origin running a halal food-truck.
“The moukhabarat in Egypt will be looking for your parents,” the ex-official told the seller. “Does your father like his nails? They’ll tear them off one by one.” On the war in Gaza, he added, “If 4,000 Palestinian children have been killed, you know what, that’s not enough!”
“Unfortunately, it takes us back and reminds us that racism and bigotry are sort of baked into American society,” said Saylor. “And we still have a long way to go to overcome them.”
It’s an evil that can be found elsewhere. Geert Wilders, a Dutch populist who has built his political career on Islamophobia, is well on the way to becoming prime minister of the Netherlands after his far-right party won the parliamentary elections on Nov. 22.
This article was also published in French.
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