Injured Palestinian Sharif al-Namlah, 3, is dressed by his grandfather, also named Sharif, after his bath at his home in Rafa, Gaza, January 21,2015. The lower part of his left leg was blown off when Israeli rockets hit the family during last summer’s war between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. (Heidi Levine/Sipa Press) A beam of light shines through the home of Palestinian Ramba Kafanah as she stands breastfeeding her newborn baby in the kitchen of her damaged home in the early morning as she breastfed her newborn baby in Beit Hanoun, Gaza on October 30,2014. Her home was heavily damaged during the recent 50 day war between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip but she still lives with her family in the home. (Heidi Levine/Sipa Press)
The emotional weight a photojournalist endures in covering conflict can be suppressed, but it can never be understated. And the commitment to highlighting the spirit of survival in the victims of the conflict can never be overstated. For American photojournalist Heidi Levine, that emotional toll has been severely challenged over her nearly 30 years documenting the Palestinian-Israel conflict. In the past year, she has done her work while also facing the almost simultaneous passing of two family members–her grandmother and father–while on assignment nearly 8,000 miles away from home.
Levine has been weaving in and out of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for nearly three decades. In the last five years alone she has seen and covered three wars in Gaza. Last summer’s 50-day war between Palestinians and Israelis that created nearly 40,000 tons of rubble and led to over 2,000 civilian deaths was especially vicious, and took a devastating personal toll on the veteran photographer. Levine spent the last half a year since the war began photographing displaced Palestinians trying to rebuild their lives as internal violence increases.
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On July 16, 2014, Levine was in her room across from the Gaza port transmitting photos when a blast interrupted. Rushing to the window, she saw only the smoke billowing into the air from the explosion that had killed four Palestinian boys who were playing soccer on the beach just moments before. “I grabbed my camera,” Levine told In Sight, “and while rescue workers were evacuating the four bodies, I found a fifth curled up next to a still smoldering hut.” The experience would be one of many tragedies that Levine would encounter, including the untimely death of a fellow photojournalist and friend.
“In the last weeks of the fighting, a friend and colleague from Italian AP (Associated Press), video journalist Simone Camilli, asked me for the phone number of a Hamas bomb disposal squad so he could cover the story I’d already photographed a few days earlier. I happily helped him out and and made plans to meet at the end of the day for a glass of lemonade. Two hours later he was dead, killed when the bomb the squad was trying to dismantle went off. Not a day passes without me wishing I had never found that phone number in my scribbled notes.” That explosions also left Levine’s friend of 15 years and AP photographer Hatem Moussa from Gaza was critically wounded.
Palestinian bride Anaan El Harazen, 24, sits in the damaged salon of her family’s home as she waits to pose for pictures with family members before her groom comes to take her away for their wedding in the Shijaiyah neighborhood of eastern Gaza City November 4,2014. (Heidi Levine/Sipa Press) Palestinian children dressed in their best clothes wait for the arrival of bride Anaan El Harazen in the family’s damaged home in the Shijaiyah neighborhood of eastern Gaza City November 4, 2014. The family’s home was severely damaged during last summer’s war between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. (Heidi Levine/Sipa Press)
In the midst of covering the daily bombings, Levine, an American, learned devastating news from family back home in the U.S.
“On day 40 of the fighting, I received a phone call in the middle of the night: my grandmother had died in Boston. I was her eldest granddaughter and she had always been like my best friend my entire life. A text message on the day of her funeral read that the cease fire broke down and the fighting resumed. I felt guilty mourning her death, especially without having any time to process what I had witnessed during the war.”
Levine returned to Gaza after just two weeks in the U.S only to receive yet another call from her son notifying her that her father had fallen ill. Soon after she arrived in Maryland, he passed away. Levine would again return to Gaza, fueled by her own need to deal with such loss, and continue documenting the victims. Among them were a father, Nabil Siyam, and his only surviving child, Badruddin, 5, after his wife and four other children were killed during a drone strike near his home in Rafa. Nabil lost his arm and his son lost a kidney. Another man, Wael Al Namiah and his family were hit by an Israeli air strike on one of the darkest days during last summer’s war, called ‘Black Friday,’ when over 50 Palestinians were killed in the Rafa area of southern Gaza.
“These cases and others highlight what still shocks and amazes me after so many years, and what my ongoing project tries to capture. They epitomize human resilience, they depict the process of emotional and physical healing that makes itself felt there in Gaza, even as the threat of yet another military conflict looms.”
A young Palestinian girl prepares herself for school as she pins her headscarf in place using a tiny broken mirror that is on the wall at the UN school in Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza, December 30,2014. Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza are still displaced by the war. (Heidi Levine/Sipa Press.) Injured Palestinian Wael al-Namlah takes a shower at his home in Rafa, Gaza, January 20,2015. He lost one of his legs during last summer’s war between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. His wife , Asraah, lost both legs and his three year old son lost the lower part of one of his legs as well during the war. (Heidi Levine/Sipa Press) Injured Palestinian three year-old Sharif al-Namlah, as he plays during his bath at his family’s home in Rafa, Gaza, January 21,2015. His mother Asraah lost both of her legs and his father Wael lost one leg when an Israeli bomb hit the family homes on August 1,2014. (Heidi Levine) Nabil Siyam, 34, who lost his arm and sustained other injuries stands, with his son Badruddin, 5, at their home in Rafa, Gaza December 29,2014. (Heidie Levine/Sipa Press) Palestinian woman Safa Fayez, 29, during her rehabilitation treatment session at the Artificial Limbs and Polio Center in Gaza City December 11, 2014 . She was seriously wounded by shrapnel during the Palestinain-Israeli conflict when IDF shells hit the UN school crowded by hundreds of Palestinians seeking shelter on July 24,2014. She lost her her baby and husband. She was a mother of four. (Heidi Levine/Sipa Press) Palestinian woman Safa Fayez , 29 , as she pulls herself up the staircase of her home in Beit Hanoun ,Gaza December 11, 2014. (Heidi Levine/Sipa Press) Wounded Palestinian woman Asraah al-Namlah, and her injured husband Wael in the evening as they listen to Arabic love songs in a room lit by safety lights during a power cut at their home in Rafa,Gaza January 20,2015. (Heidi Levine/Sipa Press) Wounded Wael al-Namlah, 26, and his wife Asraah watch 3-year-old son Sharif crawl on the carpet at their home in Rafa, Gaza, January 20,2015. The family was fleeing on foot trying to reach a safer area when an Israeli rocket attack hit them. Wael’s 11-year old sister and his brother Yusef and his wife were killed. (Photo by Heidi Levine/Sipa Press.) Palestinian Mustafa Majedah ,19, is carried by his friend Mohammed as they arrive for his rehabilitation session at the Artificial Limbs and Polio Center in Gaza City, December 30,2014. (Heidi Levine) Palestinian technicians at the Artificial Limb and Polio Center in Gaza City make new prosthetics, December 11,2014. According to Hazin Shawa, the Director of the center, 60% of the amputees the center is now rehabilitating are from last summer’s war between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. (Photo by Heidi Levine/Sipa Press.) Palestinian Manar Shabari sits in her wheelchair by her prosthetic legs that have been fitted with festive shoes to be worn at her brother’s wedding at a relative’s home in Jabalya, Gaza December, 30,2014. (Heidi Levine/Sipa Press) Palestinian Manar Shabari’s prosthetic legs that have been fitted with festive shoes to be worn at her brother’s wedding are picked up by a family member at a relatives home where the family is staying in Jabalya, Gaza December 30, 2014. (Heidi Levine/Sipa Press)