Sheikh Salam al-Hoziel 248.88.
(photo credit: Abe Selig)
As throngs of tourists pushed through the Old City's Dung Gate on a hot Jerusalem afternoon last week, many were too captivated by the epic view of the Western Wall and Dome of the Rock to notice the Beduin tribal leader standing nearby in a white keffiyeh and long flowing robes.
But there he stood, Sheikh Salam al-Hoziel, from Rahat, the nation's only Beduin city.
Hoziel waited patiently to discuss his latest grassroots movement, Medina Shelanu (Our Country), meant to combat the increased presence of the Islamic Movement, and the recent events that inspired him to do so.
The story truly begins in July, when the 50-year-old father of six was thrust into the media spotlight for his courageous efforts on behalf of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, who was abducted by Hamas on June 25, 2006, next to the Gaza border, and who spent his 1,176th day in captivity yesterday.
Hoziel told The Jerusalem Post in July that after he had seen a report about Schalit on the news, it was hard for him to sleep at night. He began touring the country with his tent, collecting signatures on a petition intended for the prime minister, that demanded he do whatever could be done to secure the soldier's release.
But even in July, when news stories began to appear about this seeming anomaly - a traditional Beduin man campaigning day in and day out for a captured Israeli soldier - some of the sheikh's neighbors - many of whom belong to the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel (an offshoot of Egypt's Islamic Brotherhood) - responded with violence in an effort to silence him.
While Hoziel constantly stressed that many of the people in Rahat were sympathetic to his cause, his life was threatened, his home was the target of a drive-by shooting, and members of his tribe pushed him for permission to retaliate - an option Hoziel adamantly refused to allow.
Instead of toning down his efforts, Hoziel pressed on, as his campaign for Schalit took him to the North, back down through Tel Aviv, and to numerous stops in and around Jerusalem.
His opponents didn't let up either.
"Ten days ago they burned my house down," Hoziel said almost casually last week, as he gazed off toward the Western Wall. "I've moved into a new house, but that one was burned to the ground."
But again, as the sheikh said in July, backing down was not an option.
"These are the people who must be stopped, not me," he said. "The Islamic Movement, those who support Hamas and Hizbullah. They're here, inside the country, and if we don't do something about them, it's not just me who will be in danger. It's all of us, all of our children and all of our children's children."
Hoziel said he had decided to put considerable energy behind this new project. While his campaign for Schalit is still in full motion, the sheikh said he now wants "Our Country" to become a household name.
"We need to get known," he said. "And once people know us, and know what we're about, I believe we'll have a lot of support."
Hoziel said he had already drafted the support of Beduin, Druse, Jews and Christians from all over the country.
"And I have invited a number of other Beduin tribal leaders, along with leading rabbis, the interior minister and head of police to a large meeting after the holidays conclude," he said. "Hopefully, we will all be able to come together on this issue."
"The point is simple," he continued. "We want to crack down on the funding of these groups, whose only goal is to hurt us and hurt our soldiers. We need to strengthen the country, we need to unify, and that's what 'Our Country' is going to be all about."
Hoziel hopes to have an Internet site up by the end of his week.
"It will be ready soon," he said. "People will be able to search for 'Medina Shelanu,' and find it."
Asked if he was worried about his personal safety, the sheikh reiterated what he said in July.
"I'm afraid of God and God only," he said. "And if He wants to take me, well, that's only up to Him."