There are approximately 30,000 Thai workers in Israel, many of whom work on farms near Gaza. Thais workers were the most common foreign victims of Hamas terror acts, with dozens dead or kidnapped.
Kong Saelao was proud of his job in Israel. Every morning, the 26-year-old Thai worker rode his electric bicycle to the fields and picked avocados until sundown.
Kong would send money to his wife in faraway Thailand, along with joyful selfies taken among lush green fruit trees. “We planned to build a house and start a family,” Kong’s wife Suntree told DW.
On October 7, the couple’s dreams were shattered. Hamas fighters stormed the plantation in Khirbet Mador and abducted Kong. He was taken to the nearby Gaza Strip, and there has been no trace of him since.
According to the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, 54 Thai workers are among the estimated 220 hostages held by Hamas, which is deemed a terrorist organisation by the EU, the US, Germany, and others. Thailand’s government reported 32 Thai workers deaths, one of the largest numbers of foreign victims.
Guest workers from Thailand in Israel are considered politically neutral and a group who largely keep to themselves. Kong’s wife said her husband mostly kept the company of his fellow guest workers.
“Why him of all people?” Suntree asked, crying. “He is just an innocent worker who wanted to earn money.” In Thailand, many people are wondering why so many Thais workers were affected by the terror attacks on October 7.
It is unclear whether the Hamas terror act specifically targeted Thais. What is certain is that labour migration from Thailand to Israel is intertwined with Palestinian-Israeli history.
Until the late 1980s, Palestinians dominated low-wage agricultural labour in Israeli farms. This dramatically altered with the first Intifada, the Palestinian revolt against Israel that began in 1987.
Israel implemented travel restrictions from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, resulting in a significant decline in Palestinian labour.
According to Assia Ladizhinskaya of the Tel Aviv-based labour rights NGO Kav LaOved, Israel has to recruit foreign labour “to reduce its industry’s dependence on the political climate, as well as administrative and military security decisions.”
Thai migrant workers were the backbone of Israel’s agriculture economy in the 1990s. According to recent polls, there are roughly 10,000 Palestinian agricultural workers, while before to the present conflict between Israel and Hamas, up to 30,000 Thais worked in Israeli plantations and orchards.
While Israel is trying to prevent Thai migrant workers from leaving by offering visa extensions and financial incentives, Bangkok is doing everything it can to bring as many citizens home as possible.
“Please come back,” Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin recently appealed to Thais in Israel. “At the moment, 1,000 Thais can be evacuated every day. I would like all of them to return.”
Katchakon Pudtason is glad to be back on home soil, after he managed to flee Hamas assailants in the back of a pickup truck.
“They chased us and shot like crazy,” the 40-year-old told DW. While Katchakon was fleeing in the car, a bullet grazed him in the knee. The passenger next to him was hit in the face.
Only after a long chase over dusty roads with potholes were they able to escape the attackers.
Katchakon’s colleague is being treated in an Israeli intensive care unit with head injuries. Katchakon was able to fly home in a wheelchair. His shot knee will heal soon, but he “definitely does not want to go back.”
He added that the remote farm where he worked in Israel did not have proper security measures in place before the Hamas attacks.
“Our bomb shelter consisted of simple concrete pipes,” Katchakon said. When rocket and shell fire was occasionally heard, he thought to himself, “If a bomb ever hits us, we’ll all be dead.”
Israeli labor rights NGO Kav LaOved said that their organization is aware of the problem and recommends that farm workers not work on high-risk days because there is no time to seek shelter in the event of a missile attack, “even if they hear a siren in a distant field.”
“A lot of guest worker housing is not high-end buildings with modern security rooms,” they added.
In addition to the existing 600 shelters, 430 new bunkers will be built in agricultural regions, Israel pledged after the attacks.
Furthermore, an amount of about €4.7 million ($4.9 million) has been budgeted for the compensation of foreign workers “who continue to work in the border area with the Gaza Strip until the end of the year,” according to the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok.
Thai Prime Minister Srettha responded negatively to the offer.
“This is unacceptable. Thai lives are at stake,” Srettha told Thai media, announcing that the Thai government would pay each returnee 15,000 Thai baht (€400) to somewhat cushion losses by leaving work.
Returnee Katchakon Pudtason said he is happy about the financial support. However, the now unemployed Thai does not yet know how he will be able to feed his family in the future.
“Three to four of my colleagues are already back working in the Israeli fields,” he says. “They are now guarded by Israeli tanks.” For him, however, the chapter related to Israel is finally closed after his traumatic experience.