Nearly a year after its grand inauguration and more than 10 years since it was first planned, the Peres House for Peace opened for business this week. The staff of the Peres Center for Peace moved their equipment and belongings from their old quarters on the aptly named Hashalom Street in Tel Aviv, to the distinctive landmark on the Jaffa coast.
The building, a 2,500 sq.m. architectural icon designed by renowned Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas, is adjacent to the Arab neighborhood of Ajami, one of the poorest and most neglected parts of the city. The Center, whose stated purpose is to promote peace between Israel and its neighbors, has vowed to do its best to make sure the same sentiments are translated to their next-door neighbors in Jaffa.
Peres Center spokeswoman Inbal Yohanan-Halpert said that much thought was given to both the location and the design of the Peace House and it was their hope that the outward appearance of the building would help amplify the purpose of the Center.
From far away the structure looks like a big greyish-green box, and presents a striking image with the stormy Mediterranean in the background. When you get closer you see that the external walls are made of layers of translucent glass and custom-manufactured concrete slabs. The architect said the layers were supposed to call to mind sedimentation like that which makes up the earth and represent time and patience, which he described as essential for producing peace.
Upon entering, visitors are once again taken aback when they see the sea through the six-story glass wall facing the west. Large spaces and open concept design give the building a feeling of airiness and the natural light that shines in through the walls and ceiling projects warmth and brilliance. Yohanan-Halpert explained that the building was designed with the narrow section facing the sea so as to block as little of the view as possible, for the residents of the area and people walking by.
"One of the reasons that the management chose to locate the building here in Jaffa, is because Jaffa is an example of peaceful coexistence. We strongly believe in the importance of creating relationships between peoples and Jaffa is a great place to put that belief into practice," Yohanan-Halpert said. "We hope that we can reflect some of the light that is shined on the Center and its activities, onto our neighbors here in Jaffa, and plan to work on building good ties with the local community."
Even before moving into the new building, the Peres Center had already started to invest in the community. "We have partnered in several programs already and intend to do much more in the future," Yohanan-Halpert said.
In that vein, the first event to be held in the brand new 200-seat auditorium was a graduation ceremony for Al-Amal, the Women's Economic Empowerment Program, where 21 women, mostly Arabs, celebrated receiving their computer technician certificates. The project, a collaboration by the Peres Center, the Arab-Jewish Community Center and Cisco Systems Inc, seeks to train women, most of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, for work in skilled positions.
Another program the Peres Center is involved in, in Jaffa, is called Saving Children. The Center brings children from the Palestinian Authority who suffer from severe illnesses to hospitals in Israel and organizes Jaffa youth to spend time with them in the hospital.
"Often the Palestinian children will arrive with only one family member, something which causes a lot of strain for both them and the children. In this way the children meet someone who speaks their language and can provide another familiar face for the duration of their stay," Yohanan-Halpert said.
The Peres Peace House has offices and conference rooms that people can rent for meetings or events and a cafeteria for the use of staff and guests. The building will also be home to the Peres presidential library and archives dedicated to President Shimon Peres's lifework.
Sitting in any of the offices, visitors can see the neighborhood through the glass sections of the external walls. "During the day, people working in the office have a constant reminder of the lives of the people outside and during the night, when the building is lit from within, the light shines through the glass layers and lends a glow to the nearby buildings," Yohanan-Halpert said.
Kabal Agabriya, chairman of the Ajami neighborhood committee, said people in the community have mixed feelings about the Center. "On one hand it is an honor to have such an impressive building with such a respected name attached to it here in Jaffa, on the other hand we are still waiting to see if they are just here for the view or whether they plan to do something to improve the life of the people living here," he said.
"The Center is right next to some of the worst slums in the city, a ghetto, the Arab Harlem if you will. The people here have serious problems in terms of poor health and high levels of crime and violence. I sincerely hope that they will look around them and work to help us," he said.
Agabriya said that he had to admit that so far he was impressed by the work of the Center. He too mentioned the youth and women's projects the Peres Center partnered with. But, he said, "I would like to see the Center providing more leverage toward lifting the neighborhood up."
Agabriya said that ideologically, the neighborhood residents identified with Peres and the Center's agenda, but they remained skeptical pending further activity. "Peres is considered a man of peace and of deeds. We will wait and see if the Center passes the test of bringing about results," he said.