Hisham Arwatani, a Palestinian-Irish-American student, has moved to a rehabilitation centre in the US, where he will begin learning how to live with a gunshot injury that means he may never walk again.
On November 25th, over the Thanksgiving weekend, Arwatani (20) – whose mother is originally from Dublin – was strolling near his grandmother’s home in the north-eastern American state of Vermont with two friends from the occupied West Bank when they were shot by a lone gunman.
Arwatani was the most seriously injured, suffering a spinal injury that left him paralysed from the chest down. The police have charged a local man, Jason J Eaton, with attempted murder.
When they were shot, the three 20-year-old students, who attend colleges in the US, were speaking Arabic and two were wearing traditional Palestinian keffiyeh.
Police are now investigating whether the suspect could be prosecuted for a hate crime, as threats against Muslim, Arab and Jewish communities in the US soar since the Israel-Hamas war erupted on October 7th.
In the West Bank, he would likely have bled out or been arrested with his gunshot wounds and placed in administrative detention— Elizabeth Price
In an interview with The Irish Times, Elizabeth Price, Arwatani’s mother, who was born in Dún Laoghaire to American-British parents, says she believes the attack on her son is a result of hate speech in the US, where media and political leaders are calling for the killing of people in Gaza and using “dehumanising and hateful language”.
Since arriving in the US last week from her home in Ramallah, Price says she has been struck by how many Arab-Americans are scared to speak out against the war.
“Being pro-Palestinian cannot be conflated with anti-Semitism because it means that anti-Semitism is reduced to a geographic space,” says Price, sitting alongside her husband, Ali Arwatani. “The Jewish faith is a global experience and that should be valued, no matter where it is.”
Several Irish-born parents have found their children caught up in the latest bloody phase of the long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Last month, Jennifer Damti, originally from Laois, buried her 22-year-old daughter, Kim, who was murdered by Hamas at the Nova Festival on October 7th. Nine-year old Emily Hand was recently released to her father Tom Hand, also a native of Dún Laoghaire, after being held captive in Gaza for 50 days by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Arwatani is a student at Brown University where he studies maths and archaeology. He attended a religious Shabbat dinner last month with Jewish students who had been arrested for demanding that the university divest from companies with ties to Israel. His mother says Hisham found it really meaningful that these Jewish students put themselves out there and got arrested.
“The Jewish communities in many countries have always been the leaders of the civil rights movements, whether it be in South Africa or America or in Russia,” she says.
Despite the severity of his injury, Price believes her son is lucky to have been shot in the US, where he received immediate medical attention, rather than the West Bank, where many Palestinians die from gunshot wounds inflicted by Israeli soldiers and settlers as ambulances are routinely denied access to treat them.
“In the West Bank, he would likely have bled out or been arrested with his gunshot wounds and placed in administrative detention,” she says. She referred to a practice where the Israeli military detain Palestinians without charge or trial on the basis of evidence that neither they nor their lawyers are allowed to view.
As a teenager, Arwatani was shot in the knee with a rubber bullet fired by an Israeli soldier during a demonstration in the West Bank against the 2021 Gaza war. He grew up under military occupation in the West Bank with the knowledge that “you are vulnerable to death and you are always subject to someone else’s whim or an institution’s decision”, says Price.
She worries that criticising Israel now could threaten her status in the West Bank. Despite having lived in the region for 25 years and being married to a Palestinian, Price does not have Palestinian citizenship or permanent residency due to restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities.
On behalf of all Palestinians, I am telling you that Ireland is in our heart— Ali Arwatani
Price’s father worked in finance, and the family moved to Dublin, then Belfast, before regularly moving country for his work. After a childhood spent across several continents, Price became a student at Harvard, where she began researching conditions facing Palestinian refugees. She undertook field research in the West Bank, where she met Ali, at Birzeit University.
Price remains on a temporary tourist visa in the West Bank as an Irish citizen, which could easily be denied. She praises the consular support she has received from Irish diplomats serving the West Bank since the start of the war in Gaza and the attack on Hisham.
“The Irish are doing a fantastic job of being present for their citizens,” she says.
Her husband, who is also an Irish citizen, commends Ireland’s empathy with Palestinians and public support for Palestine. “On behalf of all Palestinians, I am telling you that Ireland is in our heart,” he says.
The treatment Arwatani now needs to regain mobility is estimated to cost $2.8 million (€2.6 million). Despite the life-changing attack, Price is keen to highlight the attention and support he has received, including almost $1.5 million raised through a GoFundMe page.
“I have this constant thought in my head that if I were in Gaza, I would be pushing Hisham in an office chair, a broken wheelchair or somehow dragging him down the street with a bullet wound in his back, unable to feed him or to wash him, unable to give him water, unable to give him medicine and unable to take him to safety,” she says.