Inside Story

Thai laborers, the ‘working hands’ of Israeli farming, pay with blood

At Kibbutz Alumim close to the Gaza border, nine workers from Thailand were massacred, one was badly injured, and four were abducted by Hamas terrorists

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A relative hugs a Thai worker who was evacuated from Israel, on his arrival at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Samut Prakarn Province, Thailand, October 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
A relative hugs a Thai worker who was evacuated from Israel, on his arrival at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Samut Prakarn Province, Thailand, October 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

For years, foreign workers from Thailand have been part of the landscape of Israeli farms, the “working hands” in the field, as Gad Shparer, who oversees the orchards at Kibbutz Alumim near the Gaza border, described them Wednesday.

Most come from the rural areas of northeastern Thailand to earn cash that they then send to families back home to build homes, pay off loans, or educate their children.

Some 30,000 Thai farmhands were employed in Israel until the war with Hamas broke out, with around 5,000 of them working in communities close to the Gaza Strip, where 75% of the country’s vegetables are grown.

Most have been evacuated since October 7, when 2,500 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip over land, sea, and air, massacring some 1,400 people — mostly civilians — in communities close to the border, and taking at least 203 hostage, under the cover of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

Now, with continued skirmishes between Israeli troops and the Hezbollah terror group along the Lebanese border, Thai farmhands are being evacuated along with Israelis from 28 northern towns, in line with Home Front instructions.

“I don’t have the exact figure. I estimate that around 12,000 will leave. It’s a catastrophe for Israeli agriculture,” said Orit Astrachan, co-owner of Oz Manpower, based in the central city of Rehovot, which places foreign workers in agriculture. “Soon, we won’t [be producing] anything to eat.”

Kibbutz Alumim, less than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the Gaza border, was home to 41 foreign workers, 24 of them from Thailand and 17 of them agriculture students from Nepal.

On October 7, nine Thais were massacred there, one was injured, and four were abducted by Hamas gunmen. Ten of the Nepali students were gunned down, four were injured, and one was abducted.

All of the Thai men at Alumim were working in the chicken coops, the cow stalls, the vegetable fields, the orange groves, and the packing house.

(Across the Gaza border communities, 21 Thais were killed, 14 injured, and 11 were abducted.)

The Thais who survived the Alumim killings returned home on Monday on flights organized by the Thai embassy, traumatized by what they had experienced that day as they hid in the pepper fields, up trees, or, in one case, on top of a fridge for cow medicine.

Leila Djemal (left) with Thai survivors of the Hamas terror attack on Gaza border kibbutz, Alumim, at the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in coastal Netanya, October 11, 2023. (Courtesy)

Before leaving, they recounted their experiences to Leila Djemal, 58, an organizational psychologist and consultant from Tel Aviv who grew up in Thailand, speaks fluent Thai, and has been helping to translate between Thai workers and Hebrew speakers since Wednesday.

Djemal’s parents ended up in Bangkok after fleeing Syria in 1947, and she and her three siblings spent their childhoods there, going to the UK to study after elementary school.

Thai workers who survived a Hamas terror attack on their living quarters at the Gaza border kibbutz of Alumim on October 7, enjoy a Thai meal at the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in coastal Netanya on October 11, 2023, courtesy of Joe Djemal. (Courtesy, Leila Jamal)

Djemal twice visited the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in coastal Netanya, where evacuees from Kibbutz Alumim are staying. On one of the visits, her doctor brother Joe came too. He ordered Thai food for the group.

The men were concerned about their co-worker, Mitchai Saraban, 30, who was in Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, after undergoing surgery for gunshot wounds, Djemal said.

The kibbutz arranged a van and took them there to visit.

Thai survivors of a deadly Hamas attack on the foreign workers’ living quarters at Gaza border Kibbutz Alonim, visit an injured co-worker at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, southern Israel, on October 12, 2023. (Courtesy, Gad Shparer)

Unlike other communities that were destroyed during the Hamas onslaught, Alumim remained intact.

But the foreign workers’ area, which was invaded by the terrorists first, was burned and destroyed.

“They were an inseparable part of the kibbutz, the working hands,” Gad Shparer said.

Kibbutz Alumim. The circle shows where the foreign workers lived, close to the cow sheds. (Google Earth)

The Thais and the Nepalis each had their living quarters and kitchens, adjacent to the cowsheds, which were closer to the Gaza border than the rest of the kibbutz.

Said Djemal, “I spoke to the two workers who first saw the Hamas terrorists come in. The terrorists shot at the gate and then at the doors to the living quarters.”

“One of the guys managed to dodge the bullets coming at the window and to run into a tiny room where there was a fridge for the cows’ medicines. They started shooting at this little room. He climbed on the fridge, where he remained until 5 a.m. the following morning when he managed to flee to the kibbutz school, which had been secured.”

“He heard them shooting and shooting and shouting ‘Allahu Akbar‘ (God is great),” Djemal continued.

“The terrorists entered the Nepali workers’ kitchen and shot everybody, and then started to ransack the kitchen.”

ตอนนี้หัวหน้า คิวบูธ อลูมิม ได้ นำศพ แรงงานไทย ออกมาได้แล้ว ขอแสดงความเสียใจด้วยครับ กับเพื่อนเพื่อนของผม 

Posted by Chakkrit Thitkrathok on Monday, October 9, 2023

Djemal went on, “Another guy, Ekarin Supapak, 36, who had been working at the kibbutz for two and a half years, entered the kitchen to escape the smoke from all the gunfire in his living quarters and laid down among the Nepali corpses, and some of the Thai dead. The kibbutz security people had told them to go to the kitchen because it was a protected space.”

“They’d all been shot in the head,” Djemal recounted. “He lay in blood and water because there was some kind of flood, maybe from a burst pipe. When they saw footage of the kitchen on Facebook, the men saw that all the bags of uncooked rice had exploded and covered the floor too.

“Ekarin got out of there when the smoke became too much, and when he heard a friend screaming for help from a bedroom. The friend said he’d been shot. Ekarin held his hand as he died.”

Djemal went on, “Another one of the workers jumped out of the Thai living quarters and ran to the cow stalls, where he buried himself in cow dung so that only his eyes and nose were visible, and he hid there for several hours, as shooting continued on either side of him.”

The 10 surviving Thai men were finally evacuated from the kibbutz at 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara told the Associated Press that 5,990 Thais had registered to be evacuated and officials were working around the clock to accommodate them.

An injured Thai worker, front center, who was evacuated from Israel, arrives at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Samut Prakarn Province, Thailand, October 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Astrachan, of Oz Manpower, who is dealing with Thai workers who want to go home, said there were farming opportunities in safe parts of the country such as the Arava in the far south, far from Gaza. “But their mothers want them home, and I understand that.”

Inbal Mashash, director of the Foreign Workers Administration at the Population and Immigration Authority, was doing “amazing work” trying to find replacement workers, she went on.

It remains to be seen whether Mashash can help one farmer on a northern moshav who has been left without workers in the custard apple harvesting season and another who just spent NIS 400,000 (nearly $100,000) on cherry tomato plants. One worker has asked to leave, Astrachan said, adding, “When one leaves, it sets off a chain reaction.”

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