Mysterious Army Death Agitates Hebrew Israelite Community in Dimona

The IDF says Toveet Racliffe's death last year was suicide. The community, which began moving to Israel from the U.S. over four decades ago, has its doubts.

A poster in Dimona for Toveet Racliffe, a member of the Hebrew Israelite community who died in unclear circumstances in an IDF base.

Small posters have appeared on the streets of Dimona in recent weeks with a picture of a smiling, curly-haired young woman and a thick, black frame.

"We want to know the truth! What really happened to this soldier?" the poster reads. "Help us to learn the truth about what happened to Toveet Racliffe."

In smaller type, the poster asks interested people to visit a website, sign a petition and donate money. "Please consider contributing what you can so that we can appeal the army's decision to close this case," it says.

The poster and related initiatives are the work of the Hebrew Israelites in Dimona, a community of African-Americans who began making their home in the southern town over four decades ago. The community is determined to find out exactly how one of its own died in the Palmachim military base last year, a quandary that was not resolved by the submission of the army's official report on the death to the Racliffe family about six weeks ago.

Toveet Racliffe enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces in October 2013. She was found lifeless on the night of February 21, 2015, shortly after she ended guard duty at a battery of Patriot missiles.

IDF representatives arrived at the family home at approximately 4 A.M. the following morning to inform them of her death. The initial details that were given during that fraught meeting are a matter of dispute, particularly regarding the place where her body was found.

It took 11 months for the military prosecutor to give its opinion that the case should be closed "without taking legal measures against any person," a fact that did nothing to clear the cloud of distrust in the community.

Dated January 18, 2016, the two-page report says that "analysis of all the evidence leads to the conclusion that no other factor was involved in the death of the deceased.”

It also says that Racliffe was "shot from close range and it was that shot that caused her death. No signs of violence were found on her body. A discharged cartridge was examined and found to have been fired from the weapon that she was holding."

The report states that "notes," apparently written by Racliffe, were found on her mobile phone. In the notes, the report continues, "the deceased described the social anxiety that she was feeling."

From the first meetings with the family, IDF representatives said that it looked like a case of suicide, according to various sources. But apart from the notes on the phone, which were written about six months before Racliffe's death and the meaning of which are unclear, there is no other basis in the report for a conclusion of suicide.

The report states that she showed a high degree of motivation, told her friends about her plans for the coming weeks, "did not complain about any sort of emotional difficulties" and "did not show any signs of distress or suicidal expressions that required special treatment or made it possible to foresee the tragic result."

A close friend said that Racliffe was "full of self-confidence and ego" and was not suffering "from any social anxiety There's no way she committed suicide and it's not logical that she was playing with the weapon."

The family, with the assistance of the Hebrew Israelite community, has hired a lawyer, Yafit Weissboch. Two weeks ago she received an extension of the time limit for an appeal against the opinion from the military prosecutor.

Weissboch and Dr. Maya Furman-Reznick are currently examining both the IDF prosecutor's opinion and the pathologist's report in detail.

One of the questions that have already been raised is why a medical report from the start of Racliffe's military service puts her height at 158 cm. when the pathologist's report puts it at 172 cm.

Weiibroch says that the apparent difference in height could have a bearing on the IDF's conclusion that Racliffe committed suicide with an M-16 rifle.

"This case affects not only our community but every mother who sends her daughter to the army," said Shimon Osher, one of the leaders of the community's public struggle.

Another activist, Yakhin Ben Yisrael, said that "in situations in which there is doubt, the army must transfer the investigation to an external body."

"We love the country and the IDF, but it's important for us to know that they respect us," he said. "The lack of certainty creates a lack of trust."

The struggle appears to have united the community, whose members began moving from the U.S. to Israel in 1969. Most of them live in a cooperative community in Dimona.

The community received permanent residency in 2003, with 18-year-olds beginning to serve in the army the following year. Since then, the community's enlistment rate has been 100 percent.

Former interior minister Gideon Sa'ar decided to give citizenship to those who served in the army, though community activists say that only about 100 members of the community received it. Toveet and her family are not among them.

The IDF Spokesman said in response that "the IDF joins the family of Toveet Racliffe in their grief and will continue to accompany them and provide answers to any question that may arise.

"In general, investigations into the deaths of soldiers are complex and deep. In the current instance, the military police investigation was conducted as widely and intensively as is the case in every investigation. After the investigation, the military prosecution gave its opinion, which was made available in full to the family.

"The family recently applied to the IDF for an extension of the time period in which it can appeal the opinion and that extension was granted. Any reservations that are submitted will be investigated in depth and a complete response will be given to the family."

"For reasons of privacy we can't discuss details of the investigation."