How a war photographer captures the Israeli-Palestinian crisis
Independent photojournalist Heidi Levine has documented the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians for more than 30 years. She saw death, destruction and displacement. But nothing, she says, compares to the “horrific events” currently taking place in Gaza.
The long crisis that boiled again last week quickly became one of the deadliest fighting in the region since 2014. More than 200 people in Gaza alone (including 67 children) have been killed and Israeli airstrikes destroy highways and hospitals. across the territory, according to The New York Times. More than 58,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced from their homes and are seeking refuge in shelters, which the United Nations says will lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases.
Levine, who lives in Tel Aviv, is there to capture everything, dodge bullets and skunk for the perfect shot – and alert the world to the immense suffering happening in the region. Below, she tells ELLE about what it’s like to be a photographer on the frontlines of the crisis.
What is your goal when photographing the Israeli-Palestinian crisis?
I just want the violence to end, but unfortunately that never happens. The circle of violence continues to spiral out of control. My goal is to better understand the cost of war for civilians. For over three decades, I have woven in and out of both sides, sometimes more than once a day. It all feels so personal and intimate. I am currently on assignment for The Associated Press and am part of their team covering the Israeli side. Yesterday I photographed an Israeli artillery position along the border, wishing everything would stop. Before I got home, I went to a bomb shelter and saw a couple sleeping together on a small mattress. The woman told me that she was five months pregnant and was really worried that stress could trigger a miscarriage. Talking to people is a very important part of my conflict documentation process. It helps people trust me.
How has your work evolved over the past week?
The fighting between Israel and Hamas has become the strongest outbreak since the Gaza war in 2014, and there are more and more horrific events unfolding every day. I have friends and colleagues on both sides, who witness horror scenes unfolding in front of them, while trying to protect their families. Everyone I talk to says this time around feels different. The level of hatred and violence inside Israel exceeds anything I have ever seen. So many Palestinians live in fear around the clock.
Right now, my focus is on capturing the experience of families in the city of Ashdod in southern Israel. I spent time with an Eritrean family seeking asylum. The mother has to give birth overnight. Her daughter Heaven told me that she was trying to help her younger siblings deal with the trauma of sirens and booms from the Israeli Iron Dome intercepting rockets fired at Israel and often falling in their city telling them to ‘imagine something beautiful. The family faces the conflict, while worrying about their future and being allowed to stay in Israel. Today was the first time their mother had allowed the children to stay outside for a while, but a siren then warned a rocket fired from Gaza. I photographed the family sheltering in a stairwell as they could not run to the nearby bomb shelter in time.
How do you stay safe when reporting?
A few days ago, I was in Ramle, a mixed town near Lod in Israel where Jewish extremists, mostly teenagers, were on the town’s main road attacking Arab cars with sticks and stones. There was no police in sight. I have been in a lot of terrifying situations covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in Libya and Syria, but I am extremely terrified of the crowds, which have been known to attack the media in the past. I was so scared that I took refuge in a wedding hall as they closed the metal doors to protect the Arab guests inside. The teenagers had started chanting, “Death to the Arabs.” A few days earlier, the same group had almost lynched an Arab taxi driver just on the main road between Jaffa and Bat Yam. I know one of the photographers who witnessed the attack. , and he’s beyond emotionally broken.
People have been really nice and helpful to me [while I take photographs]. People I meet inside bomb shelters or stopped by the side of the road always ask me if I’m okay. Some even offer me food or water. I also have excellent colleagues who support me. Although we all work for competing news agencies, we support each other and share information, putting safety above all else.
How has this affected you and your family?
In 2014, my assistant and driver Ashraf al Masri saw his house reduced to rubble. On the first night of this current war, he also lost seven members of his family, including children, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza, near his home. The Israeli army has denied that the children were killed by IDF fire, but by a stray Palestinian rocket. The other night, Ashraf called me. He had more than a dozen family members taking refuge in his home, many women with young children and babies. Everyone waved and said, “Hi Heidi, we love you! It was a challenge to hold back my tears. Ashraf said: “I’m talking to you now, but I don’t know if I’ll be here tomorrow.” I spent the night crying thinking about what her family and so many others went through. I told him to try and move to a safe place, even offering to help them financially, but honestly, no place in Gaza is safe for him and his relatives right now.
How do you deal with the pressure of being a journalist in a war zone?
I try to talk as much as possible about my feelings and what I’m witnessing. I spend a lot of time talking to my mother, who is always afraid for my safety, but always remains a constant support. My son Michael, who currently lives in Poland, is also very supportive and proud. He checks me in and watches the news 24/7. I used to wear his jacket for good luck, but now it’s too hot outside. I also have two Maltese dogs named Romeo and Juliet and two cats that my daughter Ashley and I rescued. They all sleep in bed with me. I am scuba diving, and once everything has hopefully calmed down, the best way for me to restart my soul will be to dive into the Red Sea in the Sinai Desert of Egypt. For me, this is the best therapy of all.
This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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