Militant threat hangs over Daesh’s former Libyan stronghold

Men walk past the ruins of a building that was destroyed during clashes between Libyan forces and Daesh in Sirte, Libya. (Reuters)
Updated 10 November 2017
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Militant threat hangs over Daesh’s former Libyan stronghold

SIRTE, Libya: Nearly a year after Daesh was driven from its Libyan stronghold Sirte, residents surveying their wrecked homes feel neglected and vulnerable, still afraid of the militant threat that has waned but not vanished.
Though security in the Mediterranean coastal city has improved, residents remain wary of terrorists in the desert to the south who have stepped up their activity in recent months, setting up checkpoints and carrying out occasional attacks.
In a country where fighting between rival forces frequently flares, Sirte is particularly exposed. It sits in the center of Libya’s coastline on the dividing line between loose alliances aligned with rival governments in Tripoli and the east.
“If the situation continues like this then Daesh will come back, no doubt. There was a reason why they came. People were angry, felt sidelined,” said Ali Miftah, a civil servant and father of five.
“Now we don’t get any support from the government. Look at these ruins. We lost everything.”
Last month, Daesh gunmen staged a suicide attack in Misrata, the coastal city about 230 km to the northwest that led the campaign last year to expel the militants from Sirte.
Daesh also has sleeper cells in other cities along Libya’s western coast, security officials say, and there is concern foreign fighters seeking sanctuary after defeats in Syria and Iraq could once again exploit the country’s security vacuum and link up with Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the desert south.
Divisions among Libya’s many armed factions and uncertainty over how long the forces from Misrata that drove Daesh out will remain in Sirte are compounding residents’ worries.

Airstrikes
In parts of the city, life is slowly returning to normal, though Daesh’s black logos are still visible on some shops and inhabitants struggle with cash shortages and failing public services, as they do elsewhere in Libya.
But in areas that saw the heaviest fighting, families see little hope of rebuilding their homes.
Sirte, the home city of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, was pounded by nearly 500 US airstrikes between August and December last year.
In El-Manar and Giza Bahriya, once among Sirte’s best neighborhoods, houses looking onto the crystal blue Mediterranean are now crumpled piles of twisted metal and concrete, doors blasted from their metal frames.
A damaged primary school said to have once been attended by Qaddafi lies abandoned.
Residents say skeletons among the rubble have been left to be tested to see if they belong to Daesh fighters, or their captives. They are also scared to search their ruined homes because of the unexploded ordnance in the wreckage.
Local forces man checkpoints on the outskirts of Sirte and carry out patrols to the south. But they say they lack the vehicles and weapons to pursue the jihadists, who have retreated into mobile desert camps.
Instead, they rely on the US airstrikes that have killed dozens of suspected militants this year.
“We contain the threat but we cannot chase them in their camps because we lack the right equipment like four-wheel cars needed to drive in the desert,” said Taher Hadeed, an official with the forces securing Sirte.
“It won’t be possible for Daesh to take back the city, but there is a risk of attacks.”
The forces that led the campaign against Daesh in Sirte last year are nominally loyal to the UN-backed government in Tripoli to the west — and Sirte now represents the eastern limit of their control.
Beyond, forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army control oil terminals they seized during the campaign. But for now, the two sides do not coordinate, said Mohamed Al-Ghasri, a military spokesman from Misrata.
Residents and officials in Sirte say the threat cannot be dealt with without proper support from the state and professional security forces.
“They are suffering from a lack of services and we don’t see any real efforts or results on the ground at any level,” said Siddeeq Ismaiel, a municipal official.
An estimated 2,500-3,000 homes need to be built so families forced to live in other parts of Sirte or Misrata can return.
“This will never end if there is no government,” said Hamza Ali, a 34-year-old university employee, standing near his brother’s ruined house.
“It will stop maybe for two, three, four, five, six months, then you will hear an explosion somewhere if there is no official security, police.”


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.”