newsIsrael at War

Despite war, most Thai workers remain in Israel

Twenty-nine Thais were killed in the Oct. 7 Hamas onslaught; 23 are captive in Gaza.

A Thai worker picks decorative flower leafs in the Kibbutz Sde Nitzan flower farm, near the border with the Gaza Strip, July 20, 2014. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
A Thai worker picks decorative flower leafs in the Kibbutz Sde Nitzan flower farm, near the border with the Gaza Strip, July 20, 2014. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.

Nearly three-quarters of the Thais working in Israel’s agricultural sector remain in the country despite the war with Hamas and the vast majority of those who did leave want to return after the hostilities end, Thailand’s ambassador to Israel said on Thursday.

The remarks come while the leaders of the two countries spoke by phone and pledged continued cooperation after Thailand held direct talks with Hamas in Iran to secure the release of more than two dozen Thais being held hostage in Gaza.  

“We are trying all means to secure our citizens and to make sure they are safe and sound as every country would do,” Ambassador Pannabha Chandraramya said in a telephone interview with JNS. 

She said that 7,000 Thai workers, who had worked on the southern border with Gaza or in the northern area near Lebanon, had left Israel over the last two weeks on evacuation flights, while 20,000 other Thai workers remain in the center of the country.

The ambassador noted that more than 80% of those who left said they wanted to come back to Israel when the war ended.

“They love to be here and be part of the society,” she said, adding that many who have been repatriated to Thailand had been working in Israeli border communities whose residents have been relocated as well.

After Israel and the U.S., Thailand lost the third-most citizens to Hamas’s murderous assault on Oct. 7.

Twenty-nine Thai workers were killed in the terror attack, the ambassador said, while an additional 23 Thai nationals were among the nearly 250 people taken hostage by Hamas in Gaza, the single largest group of foreigners from a total of more than three dozen countries. 

Four Thai workers wounded in the attack remain in Israeli hospitals, including one who is still unconscious.

In one gruesome video from the attack, a Hamas terrorist can be seen decapitating a Thai agricultural worker with a garden hoe as he lay on the ground.

Another picture distributed on the Telegram messaging app shortly after the Oct. 7 rampage shows at least five men sitting in the dirt with their hands behind their backs, including a 26-year-old Thai worker identified by his parents as Natthaporn Onkeaw, in what appeared to be a bunker, as masked gunmen train rifles on them.

His family, who live in a poor rural area in northeastern Thailand near the border with Laos, said he had been their main breadwinner, sending money home regularly after going to Israel to work on a kibbutz in 2021.

A video of another Thai worker man, who has been identified as 26-year-old Kong Saleo, he is seen being dragged away in a chokehold by a terrorist in an avocado orchard.

Leaders speak

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin on Wednesday and expressed his sincere condolences over the murder and abduction of Thai nationals in the Oct. 7 assault by Hamas, the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem said.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israel is making every effort to free all the hostages including the citizens of Thailand, and noted that wounded foreign nationals, including the Thais, are receiving optimal care like all Israeli citizens. The prime minister also conveyed his appreciation for the Thai workers and their contribution to the economy and expressed the hope that many of those who have left would return,” the statement added.

The Thai leader expressed his condolences on the loss of innocent lives, injuries and abducted civilians as a result of the conflict since Oct. 7 and conveyed his gratitude to Israel for facilitating the evacuation flights of Thai nationals, according to a statement from the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  

Israel started bringing in migrant workers in earnest after the First Intifada (1987-1993) after employers began to lose trust in Palestinian workers. Most came from Thailand, and they remain the largest group of foreign agricultural laborers in Israel today with nearly 30,000 workers.

Manual laborers from Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia seek work in more developed countries where there is a shortage of semi-skilled labor—at wages considerably higher than what they earn at home.

Talks with Hamas in Iran

Last week, a three-member Thai parliamentary delegation held direct talks with Hamas officials in Iran in an attempt to secure the release of their hostages. The two-hour Oct. 26 meeting ended with a pledge that the Thais would be released “at the right time,” according to the head of the all-Muslim Thai delegation.

Waiting for flight home

Meanwhile, scores of Thai workers converged on the Tel Aviv beachfront this week as they awaited their flights at a city hotel. Many snapped photos or shot videos of the Mediterranean as they talked to family back home on WhatsApp.

“I will be back,” said a 28-year-old worker, who gave his first name as Min. He had been working at a kibbutz in southern Israel over the last four years and was taking in the temperate evening air Thursday at sunset ahead of his Friday flight back to his worried family. “I like the country,” he said.

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