Though the Nations Rage, All is Calm in the Hearts of Children

Jan 09, 2003 10:36 AM EST

BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK - Call it the Christmas pageant that almost wasn't.

But was.

A kindergarten-age Virgin Mary, hands on hips, demanded of a like-sized angel standing above her on a chair: "How could I be having a baby without a husband?" while a teacher in the wings whispered prompts to them both.

Some of the 40 singers in the choir could barely keep their feet still when they launched into an Arabic-language medley of familiar Christmas tunes.

A strikingly tiny Santa Claus stood front and center, singing his heart out.

Then there were the eight flutists who played a fragment of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and accompanied the choir in its rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy" while their teacher of one year, George Diek, played his own flute unobtrusively in the background.

It worked - sort of. Well enough to make it feel a little bit like Christmas in this Palestinian town next to Bethlehem but far from Bethlehem.

"I don't think anybody was really in the mood but we try to insist that the children go on, even though we know it is difficult," said Charlie Haddad, the superintendent of Lutheran schools on the West Bank, who was in the audience at the Dar al-Kalima School, a K-10 institution on a hilltop between Beit Jala and a refugee camp.

"In a way, there was some spirit there; but it was hardly the spirit you would find under normal circumstances," Haddad told a visitor.

These aren't normal circumstances.

Since September 2000, there has been no normal school calendar on the West Bank, because of repeated Israeli incursions into Beit Jala and many towns like it. The Office of the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and Palestine said on Dec. 5 that its West Bank schools had been forced to cancel classes regularly. One school had missed 78 days; none had missed fewer than 48.

Since Nov. 22, when Israeli troops seized Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour for the sixth time in two years, putting their 150,000 residents under virtual house arrest, the children of the Dar al-Kalima School have missed have missed 14 days, and still counting.

Whenever the curfew was lifted briefly - for a few hours every few days - Haddad was there to open the school's doors to teachers and students who would pile in for a few hours of instruction.

Then they children would go home, with stacks of homework assignments, to wait for the next seemingly random announcement that people were free for a while to go outside.

That kind of waiting was just what Haddad was doing on Dec. 26. He wondered whether he would be able to leave his house the following morning or need to cancel two important meetings, not for the first time.

The day after Christmas, Israeli soldiers fanned out across the West Bank, raiding numerous towns, killing seven Palestinians and arresting 13 in its campaign to round of members of terrorist groups. The army said most of the dead were fugitives, but conceded that at least two were bystanders. Four soldiers were injured, one seriously, in a clash in Kabatiya.

Two of the arrests were made during nighttime raids on houses in Bethlehem. The military refused to identify the suspects. Troops fired tear gas into a crowd of shoppers near the center of Bethlehem, telling them by loudspeaker to disperse and return to their homes. In response, young stone-throwers lined up at the edges of the town's cobblestone streets.

Such is life now. Haddad, the members of his faculty and the students and their families were all waiting for morning, wondering whether there would be school or not.

Diek said his flutists had had about three weeks of practice before the Nov. 22 reoccupation. For the past month or so, they had been trilling out Christmas solos at home. "One hour before the show, we practiced," he said in praise of his young protigis, who had hit most of the correct notes. "They are clever, I think."

Diek said he had not been able to gather more than 10 choir members at any time in the past month. With class time at such a premium, academic subjects had been emphasized, and music had suffered.

But when the time came, they played. And sang.

"I've explained to them that music is not something to use only when we are happy, when we feel like dancing," Diek said. "It should be (a means of self-expression) for all the time. It is one of the few things that remain to help us in this situation and they agree."

He said the school teaches that non-violence is the best response to the violent political climate in which the students live.

"It is a challenge," he said. "When we continue playing in this situation, it means we want to continue our life. It means they didn't manage to make us violent. And we are still here. You can hear our music. The students understand that."

The littler ones, those in Dar al-Kalima's kindergarten classes, some as young as 3 years old, may not understand the philosophical basis of it all, but they understood about Santa Claus, and they certainly picked up the excitement of their teacher when he began shouting, "Father Noel! Father Noel! He is here!"

The result was the usual pandemonium. A gaggle of preschoolers, jumping and clapping, plunging their hands and heads into the bags of goodies they collected from a strikingly skinny Santa who called each one by name.

Haddad said that the adults of Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Bethlehem, aware of all the suffering in their midst, weren't quite sure how to observe the holiday this year. Many were inclined to skip it altogether. Many Christians were ambivalent about the lifting of the curfew, happy for a holiday respite of freedom, but acutely conscious that their Muslim neighbors didn't have that luxury for Ramadan.

"Under the circumstances, everyone did well," Haddad said. "Under the circumstances, no one is complaining. But that was part of the idea, to make the children forget.”

"And others as well."

By Alexa Smith