In the line of duty
Khalil Givati-Rapp, a medic in the Nahal Brigade, could no longer bear the role society had forced upon him.
"I would like you to write about Khalil. This time Khalil is a Jew, whose grief over the wrongs of the occupation led to his death at the age of 20 and a few months." Those words, which reached me in an email from the father of Khalil Givati-Rapp, left me thunderstruck. It took a few days before I could muster the courage to reply, and another few weeks before I gathered the strength to make the visit.
Raindrops fell this week on Klil, in the Western Galilee, making the trees and plants glimmer with pearls of water. Smoke rose from the fireplaces burning in the widely scattered houses, and only the patter of the rain broke the silence. After three hours of painful, restrained conversation with Khalil's father, Mishael, we went out into the lovely garden to smoke a cigarette. We stood there, mute. The very air seemed fraught. A path of stones leads to a pond of water plants, a vine straggling above it. Mishael suddenly broke the silence: Here, beneath the vine, at sunset, opposite the sea is where Khalil wanted to be married, he said in a whisper. After his son died, Mishael built the pond and added a pergola for the vine that was to have been a wedding canopy. A small shrine in Khalil's memory.
His room, too, has been left as it was, as a memorial. Military gear lies on the table, as though its owner were just about to return, and alongside it are books. Maybe they tell the whole story. Maybe they contain the code that will solve the mystery of his death. Why, last Holocaust Remembrance Day, shortly after the ceremony on the base and lunch with his buddies, his manner indicating nothing unusual, did Khalil take his rifle, go into the bathroom and put a single bullet into his head?
It's unsettling to look at the stack of books in his room. It's hard to touch them. Every title is another clue. "Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits," Friedrich Nietzsche; "The Book of Disquiet," Fernando Pessoa ; "Death with Interruptions," Jose Saramago; "The Exile of the Poets," Bertolt Brecht; "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," J.D. Salinger; "Gog and Magog," Martin Buber; "1984," George Orwell; "Walden; or, Life in the Woods," Henry David Thoreau; "At the Crossroads," Ahad Ha'am; "The Birth of Fascist Ideology," Zeev Sternhell; "Infiltration," Yehoshua Kenaz; "Past Continuous," Yaakov Shabtai; and also David Avidan, Lea Goldberg and Natan Zach; and Meir Ariel's "Shirei Hag, Moed Venofel," Khalil's favorite album. A note written by Khalil lists books he loaned out: "The Complete Works of S.Y. Agnon" and "Catch-22" to Mishke; Naomi has already returned the two books she borrowed. There's a soccer ball on the floor, signed by everyone who plays in the regular Tuesday game. In a drawer are all the publications of Breaking the Silence ("Israeli soldiers talk about the occupied territories" ) and pamphlets of the struggle for the rights of the Bedouin. Now Bat Sheva, Khalil's mother, is reading her son's books. Book after book, she seeks explanations for her son's death.
Khalil was born in New York. His parents, graduates of the fine arts department of Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, now in their fifties, spent seven years in New York. Shortly after the birth of their son, they returned to Israel and settled in Klil, an ecological village not far from Nahariya. Mishael's father was the late Dr. Uri Rapp, a lecturer on theater; and Bat Sheva's parents are Holocaust survivors. Her mother objected to the name Khalil, but Bat Sheva liked the sound of it, and Mishael liked the political connotations of the Hebrew-Arabic name.
Khalil was a very sociable boy who played sports, loved music and was very politically and socially aware. He read Spinoza and Thoreau at a very young age; Goldberg was his favorite poet. On his last leave from the army he took advantage of the "three books for NIS 100" deal at a Tzomet Sfarim branch to buy "Flight to Arras" by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, "The Periodic Table" by Primo Levi and a book on Zen Buddhism by Jacob Raz. His dream was to study medicine, become a surgeon and go to Africa. In high school he pondered whether to join the class trip to Poland. His parents say he did not care for the nationalism signified by students wrapping themselves in the Israeli flag at Auschwitz. But, not wanting to disappoint his grandparents, who had been through the Holocaust, he decided to go. In the 12th grade he was one of the initiators of the letter from high-school seniors to Ehud Olmert about the fate of the captured soldier Gilad Shalit. Khalil spent two consecutive weeks in the family's protest tent in Jerusalem and appeared twice on the "New Evening" current affairs program. Now I watch him on a video recording from 2008 telling the anchor, "As a young person who is about to be drafted for combat service, I feel that I have to enter the army with the thought that the state will bring me back if I am taken captive. That is a type of covenant between me and the state, between my parents and the state, and I feel that this covenant must be implemented. The fact that Gilad has already been in captivity for a thousand days shakes my confidence and the confidence of young people my age."
A year later he was interviewed again: "We are being drafted with the feeling that the government is abandoning us." His parents did not find out about the second interview until after he died, when they asked for the first interview. He said to his parents when they visited the protest tent: "Ehud Olmert and the government of Israel do not understand the depth of the crisis they are creating among young people."
This week, his mother said, "I think we did not understand the immensity of the crisis. It flowed in his veins: the sense of failure about freeing Gilad."
This week I watched the two interviews and video segments taken in the protest tent and edited into a film after his death. Khalil is handsome, sure of himself, tall and articulate, issuing orders to his friends in the tent, constantly surrounded by friends, very impressive, giving interviews in English and Hebrew, a red scarf around his neck. "Help!" reads a poster behind him, in Shalit's handwriting. At the end of the film he is seen telling his friends about a tour he made in Hebron with Breaking the Silence activists and about how shocked he was at what he saw. He recommends that his friends in the tent go to Hebron. An argument breaks out; some of those in the tent voice hard-line nationalist opinions. Khalil was to have been deployed in Hebron shortly after he shot himself.
After high school he did a year of national service in Jerusalem's disadvantaged Kiryat Menahem neighborhood. He lived in a commune, helped Ethiopian children with their schoolwork and was active in the neighborhoods' consumer cooperative. His parents think the encounter with poor children in Jerusalem added to his consciousness of failure, like the failed struggle to obtain Gilad Shalit's release. "He felt that his fate was sealed, that an individual could do nothing," his mother says. He thought hard about whether to enter the army and was envious of R., a good friend from the commune, who refused to serve and was jailed. On one occasion, on the way to the train station in Nahariya, his father told him, "If you decide not to serve, we will be behind you." Khalil said only, "I know." Now his father says softly, "maybe if he hadn't gone into the army, none of this would have happened." Khalil, his parents say, was torn between his civic duty to state and society, and the feeling that the army was partner to the wrongs of the occupation. In the end, he decided to do combat service, despite an offer to serve in an elite intelligence unit. He didn't see himself sitting in an office, at a computer.
"It makes no difference whether you press a computer button or you shoot," he told his parents, and was drafted into the Nahal Brigade's reconnaissance unit. His parents trusted his choice, convinced that he had resolved the dilemma for himself.
No signs of distress were apparent in the course for combat medics. For the first time in his life, Khalil had an organized notebook; he studied day and night and was an outstanding soldier. At the end of the course he was declared an "exemplary cadet." His parents were thrilled and proud to see him at the final ceremony in his oxblood combat boots. After the course he was given an extended leave.
It was to be his last Pesach. Khalil had a pleasant time on leave. He went to the desert with two girls and spent a day by himself with Primo Levi in his knapsack. Bat Sheva says he showed no signs of distress, not even of the type that people see in retrospect. She asked friends who were with him at the last parties whether he had stood apart or seemed preoccupied - but there nothing like that. He went to see "The Blind Side," starring Sandra Bullock, bought clothes in the mall - Khalil hated brand names and wore nothing made of leather - and bought a knapsack for his older sister, who was about to go to Nepal. "He seemed to be at his peak," his parents say about his last furlough.
At the end of his leave, his father drove him to the Nahariya train station. A friend who traveled with him related that Khalil had, as usual, given his seat to an elderly person with no place to sit. He was in a good mood. At the Nahal base outside Arad he met up with his team from the reconnaissance unit, whom he hadn't seen since leaving for the course. The meeting was good, he told his parents on the phone. No one knew that at home in Klil, stuck deep inside a workbook of drawings from Bezalel that belongs to his parents, was a suicide note. A few days later, on April 12, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the usual ceremony was held on the base outside Arad. His friends said afterward that it was an uninspired event, but that at one point someone read out the words to Yehuda Poliker's song, "Perach" (Flower ). Only one member of the team would later tell Khalil's parents that he had thought Khalil was overwrought; no one else noticed anything.
After the ceremony the soldiers returned to the tent. Khalil stood and quoted from memory Tzruya Lahav's lyrics to Poliker's melody: "Whoever pulls the trigger, / Stains his heart with blood, / In wars for justice / Children die, too." Then he asked his fellow soldiers, "What do you think that says about us?" No one replied. Khalil said no more. They went to the mess hall for lunch. Khalil asked someone for a pen and wrote something on a scrap of paper, which he stuffed into his pocket. After the meal he got up and left. A few minutes later a single gunshot was heard; everyone thought it was from the shooting range. In fact, Khalil had gone into the bathroom, locked the door and shot himself in the head. He was found a few minutes later, when a soldier noticed blood on the floor. The stained note in his pocket said only that he was sorry and "let whoever is supposed to read this, read it."
Critically injured, he was flown by helicopter to Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva. Not long after, while his family was having lunch at home, three army officers arrived with the tragic news and took the stunned parents to the hospital in Be'er Sheva. Khalil died the next day and was buried in Klil in a civil ceremony, at his parents' request. He himself had once told them, "If anything happens to me in the army, I don't want a military funeral." The funeral took place five days after his death, when his sister returned from Nepal, after being located by Chabad emissaries.
On the day after his death, his mother turned his room inside out, looking for what people look for in such circumstances. "I just didn't believe that he had gone from us like that." Finally, she opened the drawer and found the letter, from which she now copies one passage for me: "This world is filled with evil, exploitation, injustice and pain. All my life I was between doing something to correct it (even though most of what I did was also meaningless ) and observing from the side. From the moment I was drafted I moved to being part of the side that creates this situation, and I could not cope with that ... It's said that everyone has to create a small change ... Maybe finally I have succeeded ... in creating my change." The letter, in which Khalil takes his leave from each of his friends and the members of his family, is undated.
The flames dance quietly in the fireplace and a heavy silence has descended in the room. Only once during our conversation did tears well up in Mishael's eyes. "I am so cynical. If I could only tell him: Khalilik, what you did creates no change. It's such a pity for you." His voice cracked. "If Khalil had studied medicine and gone to Africa, as he dreamed of doing, he would have fomented a bigger change. But I can no longer persuade him."
I asked Bat Sheva and Mishael why they wanted me to write about Khalil. "I want to convey what Khalil wanted," Bat Sheva said. "He hated the occupation, the attitude toward the Bedouin and the attitude toward Gilad Shalit. He saw the immorality of the army and he asked himself: What can I do? In our country that is not a legitimate question. There is one moral approach and there is no in-depth discussion about it. An 18-year-old kid has to fight Benjamin Netanyahu's war. There is no deep discussion, and anyone who thinks differently is delegitimized. I would like to speak for the youth who are about to be drafted, who are not allowed to ask these questions and are delegitimized on top of it. I don't say we don't need an army, but there need to be other ways to serve the state. There is a great deal of deep contempt for anyone who thinks differently."
Mishael adds: "He is exactly the person who should not have gone into the army. He could not handle it. With his vegetarianism and his hatred of the occupation. How sad that he had no one to talk to about that. How sad that he had no other option for serving. He felt that society would not allow him to refuse to serve in the IDF. And his conscience, too, told him that he was obligated. And then he felt that it was coming: another month and he would be in Hebron and might have to shoot someone. He postponed and postponed that moment. He went to a course, but he knew that in the end he would get to Hebron, and that tortured him. It was an ideological death that was planned in advance. He felt that very soon he would either have to shoot others or shoot himself. He chose the second option."
Afterward we went out to the garden, to the pond of water plants and to the straggling vine, beneath which Khalil thought he would be married one day, and we said nothing.