Kinnan Abdalhamid, Palestinian Student Shot in Vermont, Calls for US, Schools to Demand Israel Ceasefire

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In this op-ed, Haverford College student Kinnan Abdalhamid, who was a victim of a hate crime last fall, places a call to action for the US government and his academic institution to support a ceasefire in Palestine.

On November 25, two of my childhood friends, Tahseen Ali Ahmad and Hisham Awartani, and I were shot in Burlington, Vermont, where we were visiting Hisham’s grandmother. We had been walking down the street, chatting with one another in a mixture of Arabic and English about homework to catch up on, like so many other 20-year-old college students on Thanksgiving break. Tahseen and Hisham were wearing kuffiyehs, traditional Palestinian scarves.

To us, the reason we were targeted is clear: We are Palestinian. Indeed, the police are investigating the attack as a hate crime. [Editor's note: As of publication, the investigation is ongoing; police have not released a motive.]

The irony is that our parents sent us to university in the US so we could be safe. We grew up in the West Bank under Israel’s military occupation, where Israeli soldiers routinely invade Palestinian homes and cities and can attack us at any time. They beat, imprison, and kill Palestinian adults and children, often without consequences, as reported by the Israeli human rights nonprofit Yesh Din and other human rights groups. This was my childhood. In fact, Hisham — the most severely injured of the three of us, now paralyzed from the waist down — was shot before: In 2021, an Israeli soldier shot him with a rubber-coated steel bullet as he was peacefully participating in a protest.

The bullets that struck us in Vermont are intricately linked with the ongoing assault on our people in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza. As Palestinians, we trace the root cause of this violence to decades of brutal Israeli state-led oppression and dehumanization of Palestinians, made in Israel and exported to the United States.

<cite class="credit">Courtesy of the Abdalhamid family.</cite>
Courtesy of the Abdalhamid family.

Since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, there have been other victims of this ignorant and lethal hatred: In late October, a six-year-old Palestinian American boy in Chicago was stabbed to death and his mother wounded by their landlord, who has since been charged with murder and two counts of hate crime.

Israel’s military occupation of our land has been consistently enabled by military, financial, and political support from the US government. Anti-Palestinian rhetoric allows this support to go unchallenged year after year. The only way successive US administrations can accept Israel's mass imprisoning, abuse, and torture of Palestinian men, women, and children; Israelis displacing Palestinian families at gunpoint to take over our land and homes; and mass bombardment of a trapped civilian population in Gaza is if they do not regard us as fully human. I don’t know what anti-Palestinian propaganda our shooter may have consumed, whether it was vicious attacks from the right-wing media, smears from politicians, or even unsubstantiated incendiary claims repeatedly made by President Biden himself.

The Palestinian people are diverse in terms of religion, political leanings, and beliefs — as with all people — but it’s no accident that in the minds of so many Americans, we aren’t seen as full human beings, with families we love and dreams for a better future. We are spoken at, for, and about, denied the ability to tell our own stories. Even our calls for freedom are twisted and misrepresented. It’s frustrating when our peers display this kind of ignorance; it’s dangerous when it’s spewed by people in positions of power, when the demonization is intentional and systematic. Palestinians are people who deserve life and freedom, just like everyone else. We shouldn't have to say this.

Tahseen, Hisham, and I are deeply grateful for the outpouring of support we’ve felt from hundreds of thousands of people nationwide. But we can’t help but wonder: How much of that support is because we walk and talk like Americans? Pernicious dehumanization and repression have been a part of Palestinian Americans’ experience since long before the gunman pulled the trigger on us in Vermont, and it has only escalated since.

To me, nowhere is this repression more pervasive than on college campuses. Many university administrators across the country have given belated or inadequate lip service to the safety of Arab and Muslim students during a terrifying surge of anti-Palestinian sentiment. Not only have universities done a poor job of supporting Palestinian students, but these institutions have also tried to silence and ostracize our voices and those of our allies who are calling for the end of the onslaught in Gaza – including Jewish allies.

Colleges that claim to be concerned with how Jewish students feel appear to be ignoring the large numbers of Jewish students who have been calling for a permanent ceasefire, protesting for Palestinian freedom, and raising their voices with ours. And for Palestinian students it is doubly tragic, as we mourn the loss of our loved ones each day, and are silenced and smeared on top of that.

I’m stunned and alarmed by the rapidity with which free speech about Palestine is being maligned and shut down. Every major human rights organization — including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem — has determined that Israel's racist system of oppression of the Palestinian people amounts to apartheid. Scholars and experts on genocide are expressing grave concern that genocide in Gaza is unfolding before our eyes.

The Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, founded in 2017 and named for the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” during World War II, is calling on the International Criminal Court to indict Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the crime of genocide. Indeed, in a case brought by South Africa, the International Court of Justice just issued an interim ruling concluding that Israel may be committing genocide in Gaza. The violence that Israel is inflicting on Palestinians did not start after October 7; it has been ongoing for decades.

And yet when Palestinian students and our allies bring these facts to the table or use our constitutionally protected freedoms to protest Israel’s killing of over 10,000 children or to expose attacks on schools and hospitals in Gaza, college administrators — from their privileged ivory towers — scold, ignore, or even penalize us for using protest tactics that disrupt life as usual. For example, Brown University arrested 41 students who were holding a sit-in to demand divestment from arms manufacturing and to show support for Hisham. We know our tactics might make fellow students and faculty and staff feel uncomfortable, but that is intentional and appropriate. Sometimes we must face discomfort — discomfort that comes from confronting distressing truths and is necessary for creating change.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 14: Students participate in a protest in support of Palestine and free speech at Columbia University campus on November 14, 2023 in New York City.

Pro-Palestinian Rally Held On Columbia University Campus

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 14: Students participate in a protest in support of Palestine and free speech at Columbia University campus on November 14, 2023 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There is a moral imperative for anyone in a position of influence to take a stand against Israel’s mass killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Israel has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, and there is no end in sight. We are in dark times when this is not only possible, but also seen by many as justified. Our lives are not disposable.

Haverford College, where I’m a student, is rooted in the Quaker faith, a Christian minority focused on pacifism. As the Vietnam War raged on, then-Haverford President John Coleman wrote a letter urging President Nixon to end the war, and rallied 37 other college presidents to sign on. I expect nothing less of our current president, Wendy Raymond. As the president of a major US institution of higher education, it is her educational and moral responsibility to speak out against the brutal killing of tens of thousands of innocent people, regardless of what price she or any other leader in higher education might pay. Silence is complicity. If we are expected to take seriously the values professed by Haverford and other Quaker institutions, those values need to be implemented.

I encourage President Biden and university administrators to be on the right side of history and to stand up for basic human rights and decency. For a model, they don’t need to look further than San Francisco, one of the latest of several cities to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire. If Biden and our academic leaders don’t have the moral fortitude to do that, then, at the very least, they should not try to block or silence human rights defenders who are calling for a ceasefire — especially those of us who are Palestinian. Stop dismissing, questioning, or flat-out denying the oppression that has impacted us and our families for decades. Stop repressing our ability to loudly and clearly speak our truth, especially when we are advocating for the very survival of our families and community members. Don’t block our efforts to condemn the US government for bankrolling atrocities, to push the Biden administration to support a permanent ceasefire, to push our own universities to divest funds that enable war crimes, and efforts to redirect those funds.

Whether students, college administrators, ordinary citizens of conscience, or political leaders, let us all do everything in our power to stop this violence and oppression — and the dehumanization that makes it possible. We must insist that our tax dollars be directed to fighting for just policies at home, such as health care and housing, rather than supporting injustice abroad. Collectively, we have to resist normalizing atrocities. The longer these atrocities are allowed to continue, the less safe we'll all be, here in the US and back home in Palestine.

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