After a month of harsh living under an Israeli army curfew, English teacher Susan Atallah assigned her 11th-graders an essay question: "Is there Christmas this year in the town where Christmas began?"
Christians today are a minority in Bethlehem. But the hand-scrawled compositions by mostly Christian pupils at the Saint Joseph School for Girls in Bethlehem offer an unusual window on Palestinian perceptions of life during the two-year-old conflict.
"Christmas with a curfew, military jeeps, and fear? I find it illogical and unacceptable, especially right here in Bethlehem," writes Dalia Qumsieh. "It is our right to claim at least a peaceful Christmas, which is mainly about peace and love, but unfortunately in Bethlehem it is about occupation."
Another teen, Amira Lama, wonders why the international community did not intervene: "What is happening in the world? What is going on? ... "I feel so bad for little boys and girls who wake up screaming each day," she writes, then adds: "Every day I dream about soldiers."
The curfew was instituted after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a bus carrying Israeli schoolchildren and commuters in Jerusalem. Bethlehemites say the bomber came from outside the town, but Israeli officials say he was from here.
Nonetheless, yesterday the Israeli army announced it was lifting the curfew in advance of Christmas "because we want to make it as easy as possible for people to celebrate."
Jamal Salman, the Bethlehem town manager, says that is "a good step." But, he stresses, "we need it to be permanent, and not only for Christmas." He said the move would be insufficient to lift the gloom in the city from two years of fighting and growing poverty.
And the effects of the curfew linger for the children. For the first time in its 100-year history, there are no decorations this year at the Saint Joseph school. The reason: the curfew has kept the girls at home so much that there's been no time to put them up, says Ms. Atallah.
Until now, the curfew has confined everyone to their homes except during occasional breaks that are given with no advance notice. As soon as the breaks start, pupils rush to St. Joseph's to hastily meet teachers or take exams before they are again confined.
It was during one of those windows, last Friday, that the girls at St. Joseph's handed in their compositions.
The assignment was part of a two-year-old practice by Atallah, a former Fulbright scholar who herself graduated from St. Joseph's, of assigning journals and personal essays to her pupils. She hopes these assignments can, if not heal, at least help students become aware of their emotions about having an adolescence disrupted by war and, more recently, Israeli military reoccupation. "You cannot change the outside situation, but I work with them on their own feelings," she says.
The essays, made available by permission of Atallah and the pupils, are replete with anger at loss of the holiday and a sense of abandonment. But among some of the pages, there's also a determination to have a spiritually meaningful Christmas despite what the world throws at them.
"Christmas is knocking at the doors and the situation is getting worse and worse. But we must not be snobs, we must be humble as Jesus," writes Hadeel Fash'ho. "Christmas is great if we know its real meaning. It means helping each other, being optimistic and spreading happiness in children's hearts. This Christmas, we are sad because maybe we can't celebrate together with our relatives. But we must pray as much as we can from our heart so that God gives us the power to be strong to face all the problems."
A classmate, Roula Muslih, vows defiance. She said she would be "happier than ever" on Christmas because "it's Jesus Christ who is going to be born, the Lord, the Savior! Shooting, bombing, and curfew can change nothing of that. And I really don't want anybody from abroad to feel sorry for us because we ARE going to have Christmas and Jesus IS going to be born whether the Israelis accept it or not."
Shatha Ta'amreh, a Muslim pupil, expressed similar feelings about the recent Id al-Fitr holiday, marking the end of Ramadan, for which there was no lifting of the curfew.
"My mother made coffee as usual and cookies for visitors, but no one came. My small brother, who is 3-years old, was waiting for my uncles to visit and give him money as usual, but they did not come. I felt that everything around me was upside down. No one in the street, no children were playing. That day made a big empty hole in my heart and emotions, because I did not know if I have to cry or I have to [pretend] to be happy because it is a happy occasion for all Muslims in the world."
When asked about the essays, Israeli Defense Forces Captain Jacob Dallal says that the army would prefer not to be in Bethlehem at all, but was forced to take it over last month after the Palestinian Authority failed to prevent attacks against Israel.
"We would like to be completely out of there, but if we are not there, then the buses will explode in Jerusalem. The inconvenience that these girls go through is less bad than what happens when there is a terrorist attack in Jerusalem."