Sheikh Salam al-Hoziel 248.88.
(photo credit: Abe Selig)
As the masses passed by him outside Beersheba's Central Bus Station on Wednesday afternoon, Sheikh Salam al-Hoziel encountered an array of responses to his simple, yet surprising plea.
"Soldiers, girls, sir, ma'am, please give your signature to free Gilad Schalit," al-Hoziel called out, his Hebrew marked by a heavy Arabic accent. "Just a minute of your time please," he said. "Come sign your name for the kidnapped soldier."
Most people obliged, stopping first to ask al-Hoziel, "What is this all about?" Then they kneeled down to fill out the petition forms on his small plastic table.
"Sometimes I get over 1,000 signatures a day," al-Hoziel said. "And I stand out here from seven in the morning until 10 o'clock at night."
Many are pleasantly surprised to see al-Hoziel, a Beduin tribal leader who often dons his traditional dress - a Kaffiyeh and Jalabiya - out on the sidewalk, campaigning for Schalit, an IDF armored corps soldier who was abducted by Hamas on June 25, 2006 in an attack next to the Gaza broder, and who on Wednesday spent his 1,130th day in captivity.
The people who stopped to sign on Wednesday were a microcosm of Beersheba's own eclectic population. Religious and secular Jews, Russians, Ethiopians - even Beduins stopped to glance at al-Hoziel's table. The sheikh called them over in Arabic, explaining to them his mission and beaming proudly as they signed their names on the forms.
"It's actually strange to see a Beduin man doing this," said one man who had stopped to sign his name.
"Not strange," his friend corrected him, but out of the ordinary."
Al-Hoziel said he understands their dismay. Hailing from the southern Beduin town of Rahat, near Beersheba, the sheikh said he's gotten all kinds of responses to his campaign - from hugs and compliments to curses and death threats. "Everyone's different," he said smiling. "There are good people and bad people, some who care, some who don't."
It all began a year ago when al-Hoziel saw a report about Schalit on the news, after which he said it was hard for him to sleep at night. "I just felt so bad for his family, for him - you know, if it wasn't for the soldiers, we wouldn't be alive right now," he said. "I couldn't get this feeling to go away until I started to do something."
So al-Hoziel, who was out of work before he began his campaign, packed up some things and began a country-wide pilgrimage to free Schalit.
"I went to Jerusalem and sat in the tent outside the Prime Minister's home," he said. "There I met [Gilad's father] Noam Schalit, and he received me very warmly. From that point on, I began traveling all over the country - I went to Haifa, I went to Tel Aviv."
But when al-Hoziel returned to the south, things took a different turn for the 50-year-old father of six.
The Islamic Movement in Rahat began threatening him, along with other individuals in his working-class Beduin town, who said that if he kept up his campaign, his life would be on the line.
"First of all, I have to say that I gathered a lot of signatures in Rahat," al-Hoziel said. "But some people there said they were going to get Hamas to assassinate me. People called my phone and threatened my life."
Sure enough, nearly a month ago, al-Hoziel and his wife were sitting outside in their garden when a car pulled up around midnight and the passengers inside opened fire on his home.
"They shot up my house," he said. "One of the bullets hit two centimeters away from the window of my children's room - they were inside sleeping at the time." According to al-Hoziel, it took the police over an hour to respond to the drive-by shooting, and once they did, he was told there was little they could do to help him.
Nonetheless, because he is a tribal leader, members of al-Hoziel's clan asked him for permission to retaliate on his behalf, an offer al-Hoziel said he adamantly refused.
"I told them no," he said. "This is my campaign, and I took it on by myself - I don't want to bring my family or other members of my clan into it."
Al-Hoziel said he had expected to generate violent reactions when he began campaigning for Schalit, but went ahead with the idea anyway.
"Nothing's going to stop me," he said. "And I don't need any protection. I just need him," he said pointing up to the sky. "If he wants me, he'll take me. If not, I'll keep on doing this, until Gilad is free and home with his family."