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Why so many Thai workers became Hamas victims

Julian Küng in Thailand
October 31, 2023

Israel hosts some 30,000 Thai guest workers, many of whom work on farms near Gaza. Thais comprised the highest number of foreign victims in the Hamas terror attacks, with dozens killed or kidnapped.

Kong Saelao holds a photo of her husband
Suntree Salee's husband was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in southern Israel on October 7Image: Julian Küng/DW

Kong Saelao was proud of his job in Israel. Every morning, the 26-year-old Thai guest 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.

Thais caught in Israel-Palestinian tension

Israel has said 54 Thais are among the estimated 220 people being held hostage by Hamas, which is considered a terror organization by the EU, the US, Germany and others. Thailand's government said 32 Thais have been killed, one the highest 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 were affected by the terror attacks on October 7.

Released Israeli hostage describes Hamas abduction

It is unclear whether Thais were specifically targeted in the Hamas terror attack. What is clear, however, is that labor migration from Thailand to Israel is linked to Palestinian-Israeli history.

Until the late 1980s, it was still mainly Palestinians who engaged in low-wage agricultural labor in Israeli fields. After the first Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israel that began in 1987, this changed abruptly. Israel imposed movement restrictions from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which led to a sharp drop in Palestinian labor.

Israel had to recruit foreign labor "to reduce its industry's dependence on the political climate, as well as on administrative and military security decisions," said Assia Ladizhinskaya from the Tel Aviv-based labor rights NGO Kav LaOved.

In the 1990s, Thai migrant workers became the mainstay of Israel's agricultural sector. Recent surveys put the number of Palestinian agricultural workers at around 10,000, while before the current conflict between Israel and Hamas began, up to 30,000 Thais worked in Israeli plantations and orchards.

Thai victim decries security failure

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."

A Thai man who escaped Hamas
Migrant worker Katchakon Pudtason was shot in the leg escaping Hamas terrorists Image: Julian Küng/DW

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."

Ladizhinskaya from Israeli labor rights NGO Kav LaOved said that her 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," she 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.

This article has been translated from German.

Edited by: Shamil Shams