"Israeli employers want to have their Thai employees back and are now eagerly waiting for their return," Israeli Ambassador Sagiv said. "We do not force anyone to stay in dangerous places. photo credit:  Photo copyright Richard S. Ehrlich      

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand is allowing 5,000 impoverished Thais to fly to Israel to work for better-paying jobs in desert "safe areas," and wants to send 40,000 more, despite the deaths of 41 Thais and 31 kidnapped during the October attack by Hamas and other Palestinian fighters.

Six Thais remain among the hostages in Gaza.

“Thai nationals must be only employed in safe areas, or green areas, confirmed by Israeli authorities and the Royal Thai Embassy in Tel Aviv,” Thai Labor Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said.

Mr. Phiphat traveled on May 26 to Tel Aviv to lobby for an increase in their quota for how many Thai men and women, aged 25-41, can go to Israel for work, mostly at agriculture and construction sites.

"Even though it is their choice to return to Israel, it can't be denied that Thailand's economy is not appealing enough to keep these workers here," Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said in April.

More than 30,000 Thais are interested in agricultural, factory, and construction jobs in Israel's deserts, including more than 25,000 currently awaiting placement under a Thailand-Israel Cooperation (TIC) agreement, the Bangkok Post reported on June 14.

Bangkok asked Tel Aviv to allow 45,000 Thais to work in Israel but Israel's Population, Immigration, and Border Authority (PIBA) fixed an annual quota at 6,000 Thais, the Employment Department said.

The Oct. 7 assault killed more than 1,200 people including 41 Thais, a Labor Ministry spokesman said on May 26.

"Thirty-one Thai citizens were taken hostage by Hamas terrorists, enduring inconceivable trauma alongside their Israeli counterparts," said Israel's Ambassador to Thailand, Orna Sagiv, in an open letter published on May 14.

Before Thais go from this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian country to work in Israel, Thai military officers will teach them safety skills for emergencies.

Last year, Hamas began releasing its Thai hostages, thanks to a surprise deal brokered by Thailand's Muslim political and religious leaders who met Hamas representatives in Iran's capital Tehran, during talks arranged by Iran.

Bangkok described the Thai hostages as neutral, civilian workers not linked to the Israel-Gaza war.

Shortly after fighting erupted in October, nearly 5,000 terrified Thais workers were evacuated from Israel back to Thailand.

An additional 20,000 Thais chose to remain in Israel, and told relatives they were not in zones directly affected by the fighting.

Israel's embassy in Bangkok reportedly assured Thailand's Department of Employment earlier in May that Thais working in Israel would not assigned jobs in dangerous "red zones" and would be evacuated if fighting spreads.

"Israeli employers want to have their Thai employees back and are now eagerly waiting for their return," Israeli Ambassador Sagiv said at a news briefing in March.

"We do not force anyone to stay in dangerous places.

"We now [also] have workers coming from Sri Lanka and Malawi, as well as from Latin American countries. We are also negotiating with Cambodia.

"I do not want to see that when the Thai workers decide to return to Israel, their jobs are already filled by others," Ms. Sagiv said.

During the past 20 years, Thais have competed for the difficult jobs in Israel despite the instability and fighting.

Many of the Thais are young men from the northeast where entire families often go into debt to afford the airfare and other expenses to send someone abroad, hoping they will remit money home from their better paying jobs.

"Thai workers in the agricultural sector are known to take out loans worth about 100,000-150,000 baht ($2,777-$4,166) from the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives to pay for travel and related expenses under the Thailand-Israel Cooperation on the Placement of Workers program," the Bangkok Post reported in October after the assault from Gaza into Israel.

Some Thais were reluctant to evacuate Israel after the October assault because they needed to pay back hundreds of dollars owed to Thai fixers who arranged for them to get hired on farms and construction sites.

Meanwhile the twists, traumas, and tension over the hostages' suffering and international efforts to free them, boiled over into two diplomatic spats between Bangkok and Tel Aviv after the Hamas attack.

On Jan. 12, Israeli Ambassador Sagiv posted big photographs of individual hostages onto some of Thailand's popular, three-wheeled "tuk tuk" taxis, to display the hostages' plight and demand, in Thai and English, their release.

She reportedly led a procession of 10 of the vehicles from Israel's embassy and along nearby main streets.

"I honestly do not know what we should do. There's no guideline for that," she told journalists.

Her public campaign met with criticism from the Thai government.

"The activity was held by the Israeli embassy, and Thailand did not participate or support in organizing the activity," a foreign ministry statement said.

"We don't want any country to use Thailand as a platform to create conflict," then-Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara said on Jan. 17.

Bangkok was negotiating to release more Thai hostages "so it does not want to create any problems that will cause any misunderstanding among parties involved in the conflict," Mr. Parnpree said.

"Thailand is friends with every country."

An earlier disruption of Bangkok-Tel Aviv relations occurred shortly after the October Hamas attack, when Israel's United Nations diplomat broadcast a video which outraged Thailand for not respecting a dead Thai hostage.

"At a recent United Nations General Assembly meeting, a video clip was displayed of a victim, asserted to be Thai, inhumanely killed," Thailand's foreign ministry said in an Oct. 29 statement.

"Such horrific brutality has stirred a sense of outrage, not only among Thais but undoubtedly people throughout the world.

"The Ministry disapproves of the display of such footage, which does not afford the proper respect and due consideration for the deceased and his family," the foreign ministry said.

In 2012, Tel Aviv expressed disappointment when Bangkok recognized Palestine as a nation with pre-1967 borders and established diplomatic relations by endorsing the Palestinians' 1988 declaration of independence.

"Thai-Israeli relations have been difficult to navigate, as the country [Thailand] has to balance its ties with the Muslim world, particularly Iran, which is considered a traditional friend," columnist Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote on April 23.

"The Thai authorities and politicians credited the release of two batches of Thai hostages to their good ties with Muslim friends, including Iran.

"Most importantly, ties with Iran run deep, and can be traced back to the Ayutthaya period of the 17th century," Mr. Kavi said.

Israel's Ambassador Sagiv earlier praised Israeli-Thai relations and said, "In the realm of defense, our close cooperation has bolstered Thailand's security capabilities, enabling the country to better defend itself against external threats."

The Royal Thai Navy signed a contract in 2022 to buy seven Israeli-made Hermes unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from Elbit Systems.

The army purchased 30,000 Israeli-made Tavor TAR-21 assault rifles in 2009 and distributed more than 15,000 to their forces in the south where Thailand is fighting a smoldering separatist insurgency by minority Muslim ethnic Malay-Thais, the Bangkok Post reported.

The Israeli assault rifles were to replace heavier U.S.-made M16s as "the first non-U.S. personal firearm to be bought by the army," it said.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978, and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondents' Award. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at