Syrian opposition sets 5 conditions for opening of Nasib border crossing to Jordan

A man rides a motorbike at the Nasib crossing in Daraa province, Syria on Aug. 27. (Reuters)
Updated 20 October 2017
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Syrian opposition sets 5 conditions for opening of Nasib border crossing to Jordan

AMMAN: The Syrian opposition has tabled five conditions to be met before the Nasib border crossing between Jordan and Syria can be re-opened.
The crossing is currently controlled by four Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions: Falawaja Hawran, the Yarmouk Army, the Sunni Lions and Fawj Al-Madfaiah.
Jordan closed the crossing in April 2015 due to what then-Jordanian Interior Minister Hussein Al-Majali described as “acts of violence on the Syrian side.”
Arab News has learned from FSA representatives and local councils in the nearby city of Daraa that talks on the re-opening of the crossing were recently held between the FSA and civil institutions affiliated with the opposition on one side and the Syrian regime on the other.
Those talks were apparently mediated by Jordan and took place between early September and early October, at which point the opposition requested a month in order to come up with a proposal to present.
Mohammed Al-Sawalima, head of Daraa’s local council, told Arab News that the opposition set five conditions for the re-opening of the crossing.
“First, releasing all political prisoners in the regime’s prisons; second, flying the Syrian revolution’s flag at the crossing; third having Daraa provincial council supervise the work at the crossing; fourth, the return of the displaced to their cities and villages in Daraa governorate while lifting the siege on Ghouta and Homs; and fifth, rejecting any Syrian regime or Russian presence at the crossing.”
Arab News learned from members of the Syrian military opposition that Jordan suggested that the crossing should remain under the Syrian opposition’s control as a transit point for commodities, while moving the actual customs office to the regime-held town of Khirbet Ghazaleh just north of the crossing.
Brig. Gen. Ahmad Rahal, who defected from the Syrian regime, told Arab News that the FSA is facing a difficult choice.
“While the FSA has made great sacrifices in the south, which cannot be disregarded, it is subject to regional and international pressure in order for the crossing to be opened without anything (being offered) in return.”
He added that another possible scenario was for the crossing to remain in FSA hands “while the legal procedures will be performed by civilian employees appointed by the Syrian regime, in exchange for a percentage of fees that the FSA obtains. Jordan is pressuring the factions to accept this solution.”
The Syrian opposition rejected the first scenario, according to Raed Radi, commander of Falawaja Hawran.
“The crossing will not be opened this way,” he told Arab News. “This will not happen unless the principles of the revolution are preserved, Syrian detainees are released unconditionally, the displaced return to their occupied villages, and unless the crossing is managed by a civilian administration affiliated with the Daraa provincial council.”
Mussa Al-Zu’bi, director of the studies and projects office in Daraa told Arab News that no decision had yet been taken.
Consultations are taking place with all parties in southern Syria, in parallel with the meetings that are led by Jordan, in the hope of structuring the opposition’s proposal.
The first meeting brought together the members of Daraa’s executive bureau and was extended to include all 40 members of the provincial council. They then met with military commanders and several revolutionaries, activists, media professionals, union members, and civilians.
An extended meeting was held later, to which all provincial councils in western Daraa were invited, and a similar meeting with local councils took place in eastern Daraa.
“In theory, there is a will to re-open the crossing provided that the constants of the revolution are preserved,” Al-Zu’bi said. “Some preconditions will be drafted to be discussed in the next few days during the talks with Jordan.”
Speaking on the sidelines of an Arab Forum seminar in Amman on Oct. 7, the Syrian Chargé d’Affaires to Jordan, Ayman Alloush, told Arab News: “Their conditions will not make any difference. It is non-negotiable in any way. The opposition’s talk regarding its presence at the crossings is merely (troublemaking).”
Abdul Salam Al-Diabat, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in the Jordanian city of Ramtha, 10 km away from Daraa, explained the economic importance of the crossing.
“Prior to 2011, trade volume between Jordan and Syria amounted to nearly 350 million dinars ($490 million) per year. But it has hit zero following the closure of the Nasib crossing.
“Food and basic commodities are smuggled from the regime-held areas, and are sold at double the price on the southern Syrian market,” he continued. “Opening the crossing will result in reduced prices for our people.”


Palestinian schools strive to modernize classrooms

Updated 19 September 2018
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Palestinian schools strive to modernize classrooms

  • Schools in the Palestinian territories have traditionally emphasized memorization and obedience over critical thinking and creativity
  • Palestinian educators now hope the use of technology and the arts will create new opportunities in a society that has produced large numbers of unemployed college graduates

RAMALLAH: As the teacher pointed to the large touch screen, her first-grade classroom came alive. With the click of a link, an animated character popped up on the screen, singing and dancing as it taught the children how to read.
The day’s lesson was the Arabic letter “Raa,” and the screen displayed cartoon pictures of objects that contain the letter — desert, chair and pomegranate — as the teacher asked the children to come up with other words. The students smiled and sang along.
Just a few years ago, such scenes were unthinkable in most Palestinian classrooms. Like elsewhere in the Arab world, schools in the Palestinian territories have traditionally emphasized memorization and obedience over critical thinking and creativity.
With an eye to the future, some Palestinian educators now hope the use of technology and the arts will create new opportunities in a society that has produced large numbers of unemployed college graduates.
“The students don’t need to memorize things. They need to understand first,” said Ruba Dibas, the principal of the Ziad Abu Ein School in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “Then they need to express their understanding through writing, speaking, drawing, acting.”
Ziad Abu Ein is one of 54 “smart teaching schools” introduced last year. This year, the number tripled. By 2020, all 1,800 public schools in the West Bank are to be part of the program.
Dibas said the goal is to eliminate testing from the classroom. Instead, she said students need to enjoy the learning process to absorb information.
On a recent day, her school was buzzing with activity.
In a fifth-grade classroom, each child had a tablet and the teacher guided them through an Arabic lesson, using her own tablet to give assignments. Third-grade students went to the smart board, playing a game to learn the multiplication table.
In other classes, students drew cartoons to learn the physics of how airplanes fly. An English class did a project about evaporation.
Four third-graders recently learned about self-esteem in a lesson called “learning by drama.” They performed a short skit about a shy girl who discovers a passion for journalism and grows up to become a successful reporter.
Their teacher, Sawsan Abdat, said the children learned an important lesson that day — that they need to find what they are good at.
After initial skepticism from parents last year, enrollment at the school has nearly doubled. This year’s first grade has nearly tripled to 43 students.
“I love the school,” said Malak Samara, a 9-year-old fourth grader. “We learn and enjoy. We learn and play.”
These techniques are a radical departure from a system in which generations of students were forced to memorize information and cram for exams under the stern watch of an authoritarian teacher who in some cases would beat them with a stick if they could not complete their work.
But with the unemployment rate for new college graduates hitting 56 percent, according to the Palestinian Statistics Bureau, officials realized that something had to change.
Education Minister Sabri Seidam also introduced vocational training in grades seven, eight and nine last year to meet the needs of the market.
“Society needs singers, carpenters, cleaners, athletes, sergeants,” he said. “We can’t just produce engineers and doctors.”
Youth unemployment, particularly among university graduates, is a major problem across the Arab world. It was considered a driving force behind the Arab Spring revolutions that rocked the region in 2011.
Arab governments used to absorb new graduates, often in civil service jobs, but they can no longer afford to do that, in part because of the region’s “youth bulge.”
The private sector offers limited opportunities, leaving large numbers of young graduates unemployed throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
“There is no greater challenge facing the MENA region in its efforts to build a future based on inclusive growth than job creation,” the International Monetary Fund said in a report early this year. It noted that 60 percent of the region’s population is under 30, the world’s second-youngest after sub-Saharan Africa.
“Pressures on the region’s labor markets are rising. In the past five years, the region’s working-age population increased by 50.2 million, and 27.6 million people joined the labor force. Yet employment increased by only 25.4 million,” it said.
Others in the Mideast have tried to make similar changes. In Egypt, the largest Arab country, the Education Ministry this year is providing students with tablets, along with a new curriculum that enhances critical thinking.
The ministry said it is also trying to improve the level of instruction by increasing training and wages for teachers, building more classrooms and creating a more modern classroom through digital learning facilities. The government this year secured a $500 million loan from the World Bank to help fund the reforms.
For now, it appears too soon to say whether the reforms can make a difference.
The region’s authoritarian governments might encourage education reforms as an economic necessity but could balk in the future at efforts to nurture a new generation versed in critical thinking. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, governments in the region have increasingly stifled expression.
Schools across the Arab world face other obstacles as well. A 2015 study by the UN culture and education agency UNESCO talked about chronic underfunding, a lack of qualified teachers and increased class sizes throughout the region.
Syrian schools have been devastated by a seven-year civil war, while many schools in neighboring Lebanon have been overwhelmed by Syrian refugees. US cuts in funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees have jeopardized the school year for some 500,000 students, most of them in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And Israel’s half-century occupation of the West Bank, along with a decade-long blockade over Gaza, continues to stifle the Palestinian economy.
“Education in the Arab world is in a very bad condition. The salaries of teachers are very poor, the classes are overcrowded, and schools lack the essential infrastructure,” said Saeda Affouneh, director of the E-Learning Center at Al-Najah University in the West Bank.
She praised the changes taking place in Palestinian schools.
“But this new system faces real challenges in the Palestinian schools,” she warned. “They need to train the teachers and to provide the proper resources.”