Volunteers help Arab Israeli farmers suffering from labor shortage amid war in Gaza

Jews and Arabs from Haifa head to Baqa al-Gharbiya to aid agriculture workers as Palestinian West Bank workers barred from entering Israel, Thai laborers have fled country

Illustrative: A strawberry farm near the city of Netanya, on February 20, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative: A strawberry farm near the city of Netanya, on February 20, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

In Baqa al-Gharbiya, an hour’s drive south of Haifa, city folk have temporarily taken to the countryside to aid farmers facing a labor shortage exacerbated by the war against Hamas.

Whether teachers or lawyers, Arab or Jewish, they have come together during their leisure time to lend a helping hand to Arab Israeli farmers like Marwan Abu Yassin for the harvest.

Arabs with citizenship account for around 20 percent of Israel’s population.

“I had 16 Thai workers, but nine left the country because of the war, and I had 15 workers from the West Bank who no longer come to Israel because of the roadblocks,” said Abu Yassin, 55.

War erupted after Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities. The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — including babies, children and the elderly.

In response, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas, and launched a widescale offensive aimed at rooting out the terror organization’s military and governance capabilities. The offensive has drawn international reproach for its mounting death toll, with the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza reporting over 18,000 Palestinians dead. However, these figures cannot be verified and are believed to include both combatants and noncombatants, as well as civilians killed by errant Palestinian rockets.

Since the war began, Israel has suspended work permits for around 130,000 Palestinian day workers from the West Bank.

File: Palestinian workers crossing into Israel at the Tarkumiya checkpoint near the southern city of Kiryat Gat, November 14, 2019. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

The war cabinet is torn over whether to allow the return of Palestinian laborers, with some suggesting workers be brought in from places like India.

The farm sector has also lost many from its other key source of labor — Thais — who numbered some 30,000 before the war.

Many have fled the country after October 7 assault, which saw 34 Thai nationals killed by Hamas, 19 wounded and 24 taken hostage who have since been freed, according to Thai authorities.

‘Boost to farmers’

It was the farmers themselves who launched calls for volunteers, said Ibrahim Mawasi, 65, who helped coordinate the effort.

“A week after the war, we got together and decided to mobilize all the people who wanted to save agriculture,” he said.

Though they have helped, Mawasi said they really needed experienced farmers.

On Abu Yassin’s farm, he normally cultivates 150 dunams (around 15 hectares) of land, but can only work around 50 this season, with only seven employees, and still has costs to maintain the rest.

In his fields, volunteers were picking cucumbers, placing seedlings on stakes, and preparing for the strawberry harvest when the rains interrupted them.

Yusef Sader, a retired physics teacher, said he knew the work would leave him exhausted, but was happy to have “given a little boost to the farmers.”

For Guy, 56, a social worker who did not give his surname, volunteering for the harvests was “very important for good relations between Jews and Arabs.”

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