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My Gaza childhood – John Sergeant

Blog | By John Sergeant | May 14, 2021

John Sergeant, aged three, in 1947 (Copyright John Sergeant)

Being neither Israeli nor Palestinian, I should not be so personally affected by the latest flare up in the Middle East. But all those bursts of war followed by periods of uneasy peace, have punctuated my life and stirred up some strong emotions.

As a small child my family lived in one of the grander parts of Jerusalem. During the Second World War my father had been a vicar in Buckinghamshire, escaping shot and shell. Feelings of guilt drove him to Israel as a Christian missionary. And Israel’s war of independence was hotting up.

My mother was determined to join him, with their three young children. She was even undeterred by the devastating Jewish attack on the King David Hotel. In the autumn of 1946, at the age of two, I took up residence in what was then called “The Street of the Prophets.” But after five months, with violence increasing, British women and children were evacuated. An R.A.F serviceman was killed outside our house.

In an ironic twist of fate, we were sent to a refugee camp in Gaza. My father eventually followed us back to Britain, two years later when the State of Israel came into being. The next time I went to Israel my mother had remarried and my step father was a visiting professor at Tel Aviv university. I had a blissful holiday with them celebrating my 21st birthday. We spent time in a kibbutz close to the Lebanese border, a peaceful border, we were assured. Nobody expected it to be otherwise.

Thirteen years later I was on that same Lebanese border, as a BBC war correspondent, For the first time, the Israelis invaded Lebanon, and I was there. Jumping into a bomb shelter, I heard for the first time, the frightening words of the rocket warning, “Incoming.”

Becoming a BBC political correspondent did not prevent more dramas in Israel. When John Major was prime minister we visited a peaceful Gaza. The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, even hugged me. Later I was with Tony Blair visiting Israel after the 9/11 attacks.

Only last week I was planning to write an optimistic holiday feature in Israel. I had no idea that, once again, I might be frightened to hear the shout of “Incoming”. But I have come to the conclusion that perhaps I am not yet ready to re-live my past, in quite that way.