The family of Toveet Radcliffe says it is unsatisfied with the outcome of an Israeli army investigation into the young soldier’s death, and will appeal the Military Advocate General’s decision to close the inquiry into her untimely demise. Toveet’s family members, especially her mother Khydijah, remain unconvinced by the IDF’s claims regarding the circumstances and cause of her death.
Last week, nearly a full year after Toveet’s passing, the Israeli Air Force submitted its official report to the Radcliffe family, which concluded that no other person had been involved in the nineteen-year-old’s death. “Examination of the aggregate of evidence leads to the conclusion that there is no documented proof of the involvement of others in the death of the Deceased,” the IDF report stated. In ruling out murder or other foul play, the report suggested Toveet committed suicide.
The news came as a crushing blow to her family and friends in the African Hebrew community in Dimona, Israel. The community was initially established in 1969 by African-Americans who immigrated to Israel after embracing Hebraic spiritual practices in the United States. The first wave of African Hebrews was treated as all other dark-skinned Jewish immigrants: sent to small towns, like Dimona, in Israel’s periphery and given furnished apartments and work permits.
Toveet was the first member of this community, as well as the first African-American to die while serving in the Israeli army. Incredibly, she was also the great-great-grand-niece of African American heroine and abolitionist, Harriet Tubman.
African Hebrews Trade Service for Citizenship
In Israel, only Jews are legally required to serve in the armed forces. While Toveet was not Jewish, serving in the army could still have had its appeal for her. Military service can significantly improve one’s economic prospects, as a number of professions are effectively unavailable to those who have not served in the army. These circumstances have an oversized effect on low-income families like Toveet’s.
But, economics is not the only reason why someone like Toveet might decide to serve in the military. As the child of African Hebrew Israelites, she had another powerful incentive to serve: the promise that she, as well as her mother, could apply for full-fledged Israeli citizenship upon her discharge.
Shortly after African Hebrews began immigrating to Israel, in the early 1970s, authorities realized that their Afro-centric spiritual practices were markedly different from both Occidental and Oriental Orthodox Judaism, which are the only state-approved streams of the faith. Because they were no longer considered “Jewish,” the Israeli government spent the next few decades attempting to expel all African Hebrews from the country.
Ultimately, the Israeli government relented and agreed to permit the community, which numbered only a few thousand members, to remain in the country, but only as “temporary residents.” There was one loophole, however. African Hebrews could obtain full citizenship if they or at least one of their children completed their army service.
Operating Patriot Missiles Far from the Frontline
At the time of her death, Toveet was responsible for the operation of American-manufactured Patriot surface-to-air missiles at Palmachim, an Israeli Air Force base on the Mediterranean coast about half an hour south of Tel Aviv. Sometime between 10:00 PM and midnight on February 21, 2015, Toveet died on that base.
In the early hours of February 22, 2015, army representatives came to the Radcliffe home in Dimona to break the tragic news of her death. Toveet’s mother Khydijah recalled those critical moments for Muftah:
I asked how many people died. I thought that some terrorists went up there to on their base and started shooting people. Or, I thought that she had died in a bus blow up, a bus crash or something. They said that no, she was on the base; she was on her own. They said that she had died by herself. I said, ‘By herself? How?’ They said she was in her room. She wouldn’t tell me how at first, she said that she was in her room. We found her dead in her room by herself. I asked if it was food poisoning… She said no, that she was shot. I asked if she was shot, how? What do you mean that she was shot?
The soldiers left the Radcliffe home in the early hours of the morning. Later that same week, another contingent of IDF troops visited the Radcliffe family with a different story about how Toveet had died. This time, they claimed Toveet’s limp body was discovered in a small guard booth on the base. “When they came a few days later, that’s when they said she was found on patrol,” Khydijah recalls.
The IDF Story Has Changed over Time
The specific location of Toveet’s body is not the only part of the IDF’s story that has changed over time. Khydijah says IDF soldiers first told her Toveet died from two bullets to the head. Later, the story was revised; the official IDF report released last week states that Toveet died as a result of a single bullet that pierced her brain.
These contradictions, among others, have eaten away at Khydijah’s confidence in the IDF. Her suspicions started to grow when Toveet’s friends told her IDF investigators were questioning them about Toveet’s mental state, suggesting she may have been morose because of her family’s financial situation and capable of self-harm.
“Everybody loved her. Everyone that she met, she always touched their soul and their spirit. She was very happy,” Khydijah told Muftah. “Of course all teenagers go through their hormonal depressions, but she was very strong-spirited, she had a lot of plans and she loved living life. She loved life to the fullest and she had a lot of plans of things that she wanted to do.”
Khydijah insists that Toveet would never have willingly ended her own life. “She wanted to travel when she got out of the military. She wanted to take [her siblings] M and S [names redacted] to New York,” says Khydijah, noting that Toveet was in touch with her cousins in the States. “They made plans to travel and go to a few places in America. So, all of these plans, I know that she was not planning on hurting herself.”
Physically Impossible Gunshot Trajectory
Toveet’s family and friends are most skeptical about the IDF’s claims regarding the method the young soldier allegedly used to kill herself. “The thing that hurts me more is that I don’t know what happened to her, that hurts more,” Khydijah says.
The IDF report posits that Toveet held the barrel of her M-16 rifle up to the front of her forehead with her left hand, and that she held the rest of the rifle up in the air with her right hand at least level with her head, if not higher, while simultaneously pulling the trigger with that same hand.
Now, it is perfectly possible for a person to aim the barrel of an M-16 rifle at one’s own head and pull the trigger. The easiest way to do this would be to place the butt of the gun on the ground and hold the barrel up to one’s chin. Alternatively, one could insert the barrel into one’s own mouth. It is even theoretically possible for a person to hold the barrel up to her own temple, and shoot herself in the side of the head.
The IDF’s version of Toveet’s suicide would, however, be a far more challenging thing to accomplish for a young woman measuring 5 feet 8 inches — Toveet’s height as recorded by the army autopsy. It would have been physically impossible, however, for a young woman measuring 5 feet 3 inches — Toveet’s actual stature.
With a barrel of an M-16 flush with her forehead and the body of the gun extending forward either level or sloping upwards, Toveet’s arms would have been too short to reach the trigger, about twenty-one inches away. A re-enactment of the incident done with Toveet’s sister, “M,” who is of a similar height, makes this clear.
If Toveet had insisted on shooting herself in this odd way, she could have theoretically held a thick stick or other hard object in her hand and used it to depress the trigger. The IDF report does not, however, mention any object found at the scene that fits this description.
If, as the IDF pathologist proposed, Toveet held the gun up to her own forehead with one of her hands, that hand might be expected to have traces of powder particles and soot. The pathologist did not, however, report finding any such chemical byproducts on Toveet’s hands.
Toveet’s Family Seeks Answers
Even if Toveet had been a Jewish Israeli citizen, her family would have likely faced challenges in holding the Israeli army to task and receiving answers to their questions. But because Toveet’s family members are not Israeli citizens, and do not vote in federal elections, they have no elected officials to turn to for help.
Without disposable income to pay the fees for a lawyer, Khydijah has had no choice but to confront Toveet’s army commanders herself. “I didn’t bite my tongue. I told the commanders and I told her friends. I said that somebody on the base with my daughter hurt my daughter, I said that she did not do that to herself. I know my child, and there is no secret to how I feel,” Khydijah recalls.
“I feel that whatever happened that it had to be a big person that arranged this, to do this, to cover something like this up. I wouldn’t be saying this if they hadn’t said that my daughter killed herself. I don’t want you all to tarnish my daughter’s character,” Khydijah says.Khydijah’s decision to be outspoken about her daughter’s death was not lightly taken. She remains fearful that her confrontational stance toward the army could prompt officials to deny the rights of Toveet’s two brothers and sister, who Khydijah continues to raise, as a single parent, on her meager disability pension.
The IDF Responds
Attempts were made to obtain a comment about this story from the IDF. On January 31, 2016, an email was sent to the IDF asking the following questions:
A. As part of the IDF investigation into the death of Toveet Radcliffe, did the IDF utilize the services of a scene expert? If the IDF did in fact utilize the services of a scene expert, what did the scene expert conclude was the firing angle of the rifle used to kill Toveet Radcliffe? And how did the scene expert explain it would have been physically possible (not to mention logically sensible) for Toveet Radcliffe to have fired a bullet from that firing angle?
B. The IDF autopsy report mentions that the IDF pathologist found “blackish residues that settle with other gunshot byproducts, primarily propellant power particles and soot” on the head of Toveet Radcliffe. It does not mention finding any of these residues on either of Toveet’s hands. Is the lack of residue on either of Toveet’s hands consistent with the supposition that one of Toveet’s hands – the left one, in the opinion of the pathologist – held the barrel of the rifle up to her forehead?
C. How does the IDF account for the discrepancies in the accounts of the death of Toveet Radcliffe given to her mother Khydijah? If the official IDF report of last week declared that Toveet was found dead in a guard booth and that just one bullet was shot through her head, then why was Khydijah told right after Toveet’s death that Toveet was found dead in her assigned bed, and that not one but two bullets were shot through her head?
On February 2, 2016, the IDF responded as follows:
The Israel Defense Forces empathizes with the sorrow of the bereaved family and will continue to accompany them. Regarding the circumstances of the death of Toveet Radcliffe of blessed memory, a thorough and comprehensive investigation was carried out. After closely examining the investigation materials, the Military Attorney General gave their opinion. All of the investigation materials have been made available to the family, including the opinion. If the family has questions regarding the information that has been transferred to them, or has requests for additional information, they will be answered in full, directly to the family.
Khydijah told Muftah she has yet to receive any investigation materials from the army, other than the pathologist report and the military attorney general’s opinion.