I Was Shot in Vermont. What if It Had Been in the West Bank?

Mr. Awartani is a Palestinian American student at Brown University.

That frigid autumn night in Burlington, Vt., was not the first time I had stared down the barrel of a gun. It was not even the first time I had been fired at. Half a world away, in the West Bank, it had happened before.

On a hot day in May 2021, a classmate and I, both of us 17 at the time, were protesting near a checkpoint in Ramallah. Bullets, both rubber and metal, were flying into the crowd, even though we were unarmed. I was hit with one of the former; my classmate, the latter. Before, we had been students cramming for our chemistry final; then, on the other side of Israeli rifles, we were a mass of terrorists, disqualified from humanity.

So that night in November, when my two friends and I were shot while we were walking on North Prospect Street, I was not particularly surprised to find myself lying on the lawn of a white house and blood splattered across the screen of my phone. Back home in Ramallah, I knew that I was one wrong move away from bleeding out; Israeli soldiers have been known to prevent or hinder paramedics from tending to injured Palestinians. But I had never expected to feel this on a quiet street in Vermont, on a stroll before Thanksgiving dinner.

The shooting of three Palestinian Americans in Burlington has received more sustained coverage than any single act of violence against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank since Oct. 7. Why did reporters and news channels interview our mothers and take our portraits when young men my age have been shot at by snipersdetained indefinitely without trialand treated as a statistic?

It’s a question that has eaten away at me these past months. Was it the shock of such a violent crime in peaceful Vermont? Was it that my friends and I went to well-known American colleges? Did the timing of our shooting during a holiday weekend play a role? I’m sure it did, but to me, the determining factor is the reframing of the crime: Instead of settlements, the Oslo Accords or the intifada, the conversation around our shooting involved terms such as “gun violence,” “hate crimes” and “right-wing extremism.” Instead of being maimed in Arab streets, we were shot in small-town America. Instead of being seen as Palestinians, for once, we were seen as people.

Death and dehumanization are status quo for Palestinians. We grow used to being funneled through checkpoints and strip-searched, assault rifles trained on us all the while. The result is a constant existential calculus: If an unarmed autistic manan 8-year-old boy and a journalist wearing a vest emblazoned “Press” could be perceived to be such a threat that they were shot dead, then I must accept that by existing as a Palestinian, I am a legitimate target.

This dynamic was so ubiquitous to me that I could not quite put it into words until I left the West Bank to attend college in the United States. My classes gave me the vocabulary to understand dehumanization, the portrayal of the colonized as a violent primitive. I realized that the infrastructure of the occupation — the checkpoints, the detentions, the armed settlers encroaching — is built around the violence I assumed to be capable of, not who I am.

This system of othering — Israeli-only roads, fenced-off settlements, the “security” wall — is an inherent part of the Israeli state psyche. Yet far from ensuring Israelis’ safety, it instead inflicts mass humiliation on Palestinians. Close to halfof the Palestinians alive today were born after the violence of the second intifada, and have interacted with Israelis only in the confines of the security apparatus built in its wake. The military apparatus in my home in the West Bank is a judge, jury and executioner. While settlers in the West Bank are subject to Israeli civilian law, Palestinians are subject to military law. It is as if we are all already combatants.

The dehumanization we face is twofold: Beyond the day-to-day aspects of our lives, it permeates the media coverage of what we experience. In the news, our militancy is presumed, our killers unnamed, and our deaths repackaged into statistics. Somehow, we die without being killed. The very veracity of our deaths is called into question. The extent of the civilian death toll in Gaza should not come as a surprise when Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, can speak unchecked of “human animals.”

I think back to the circumstances in which I was shot with my two friends, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Aliahmad, and imagine them instead in the context of the West Bank. A Hisham, Kinnan and Tahseen shot there could have been left to die. Our names would circulate for a day or two in pro-Palestinian circles, but in the end, we would be commemorated only on a poster in the streets of Ramallah, our faces eventually worn down with time like the countless others I’ve walked past in the streets of my home. If that scenario does not stir the same feelings in you as my shooting, if your first instinct when a Palestinian is shot, maimed or left handicapped is to find excuses, then I do not want your support.

When I was still in the hospital, my family and I were visited by a friend who had just recently made it out of Gaza. He recounted how he saw the beginning of the Israeli bombing from his balcony, and soon after showered and left his house with a prepacked bag. He told me of tents, of hunger, of explosions, but there is one thing that really stood out for me as he recounted his ordeal.

He explained how the only way for him to survive in Gaza was to accept that he had already died. Only after he had come to terms with the realization that his life as he knew it was over could he enjoy a puff of a cigarette and a sip of coffee in the morning. This acceptance is the goal of the Israeli dehumanization complex. To be Palestinian today is to accept this fate.

I have been back on campus since February, and the adjustment has been tough. The man who is accused of shooting me has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted second-degree murder. But my mind is elsewhere. Every morning when I wake up, I check for one number. It has exceeded 35,000. It’s difficult for me to come to terms with the reality of so much loss.

In class, between Mesopotamian myths and commutative algebra, a few thoughts play on a loop in my mind: How can we come back from so much grief? How could we let this happen? What are we supposed to make of the world when Palestinian deaths are excused by talking points, repeated again and again on the news? I yearn to return to my home, to my olive trees, my cats and my family.

I realize, though, that when I cross the King Hussein Bridge from Jordan into the West Bank, I will return to my designation as a potential terrorist. I cease to be a junior at Brown University, a student of archaeology and mathematics, a San Francisco Giants fan, a Balkan history nerd. My entire identity will be reduced to my capacity for violence, not as a human being, but as a Palestinian.