Thai Workers in Israeli Border Communities Traumatized After Gaza Violence

Chanpen Sae-jo, 32, was taken to the hospital in serious condition after Thursday's rocket attack. Her employer: 'Anyone who tells you he isn’t afraid is lying'

Thai workers at Talmei Eliyahu, August 10, 2018.
Josh Breiner

Evidence of the rocket attack was still visible in the Thai workers’ housing compound on the outskirts of the Talmei Eliyahu cooperative farming community on Friday. The old tractor which went up in flames stood at the entrance to the compound, under a shelter punctured by shrapnel. Next to it was a pile of sooty pipes.

Despite the announcement of a cease-fire, the workers didn’t go out to work in the fields on Friday.

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“They’re still traumatized, and the truth is, I understand them; I’m scared myself,” said Amit Abutbul, their employer. “One of their friends was wounded right next to them. Anyone who tells you he isn’t afraid is lying.”

The wounded worker, Chanpen Sae-jo, 32, was taken to Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva in serious condition Thursday morning after being hit by shrapnel. At 5:20 A.M. Thursday, the Code Red rocket alert sounded in the compound. While the other workers managed to run to the shelter, Sae-jo, who had just returned to her room at the edge of the compound after showering, did not. She was hit about seven meters from the shelter.

The rocket that fell on the Thai workers' compound, August 9, 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

By Thursday afternoon, however, the hospital was already reporting that her condition had improved and Friday morning the Thai consul in Israel reported further improvement. Her condition as of Friday was stable.

Sae-jo’s friends said she arrived in Israel a little over two years ago. Her husband and two children stayed behind, in their village in northern Thailand.

“She is a good worker who loves to spend time with her friends, go shopping and eat well,” Abutbul said. “The bottom line is she came here to earn a living.”

A worker in Talmei Eliyahu, August 10, 2018.
Josh Breiner

During her first hours in the hospital, her closest friend stayed by her bedside. “She’s important to him,” Abutbul explained, sitting outside his office with his friend David Shlomo.

Because of the rocket fire, he has given his workers time off. He’s already used to the financial losses caused by the security tensions.

“The damage totals hundreds of thousands of shekels,” he said. “Everything is shut down, and there’s huge indirect damage. It’s a cycle that never ends," he said. “I understand the workers,” he added. “It’s frightening, they’re worried. They saw their friend bleeding beside them. They see us running to the shelters along with them.”

Communicating with the workers is difficult, almost impossible. “Nice madam,” one of the workers said in English of Sae-jo. Attempts to get them to comment on the situation elicited the Hebrew word “balagan,” or “mess,” and the English phrase “no happy.” One of the shrapnel pieces hit their shared refrigerator, which stopped working.

They spend their free time playing cards or visiting other workers employed by other communities in the area. Every few weeks, they go to Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon or Tel Aviv. They sleep on mattresses. Their tables are littered with cans of shrimp, one of their favorite foods.

Abutbul owns about 300 dunams (75 acres) where he grows mainly parsley, dill, mint, scallions and cabbage. About 20 Thais live and work in the compound. “They pay bribes over there to get into the pool that can work in Israel,” Abutbul says. “It’s worth it for them; they earn minimum wage here but they receive all the rights possible, including pension. Usually they start work at 6 A.M. and finish at noon. Sometimes, because of the heat, they finish even earlier,” he adds.

Despite the heavy heat, some of the workers wear long-sleeved garments. Others are in short sleeves with their nose and mouth covered. Some of them mount a cart pulled by a tractor and go to visit their friends on the nearby town. They all have smartphones. One of the women, whose room is opposite Sae-jo’s, shows me her family on Facebook and goes back to sit on her mattress. The room across from hers is chained and padlocked shut.

This is not the first time that Thai workers in Israel have been injured in the conflict. In 2014, in Operation Protective Edge, Narakorn Kittiyangkul, 36, who worked in a greenhouse in a southern community near Gaza. Four years earlier, Mani Singmanfon, 33, was killed by a Qassam rocket strike. He didn’t make it to the protected area. They are both mentioned briefly on Israel’s website devoted to civilians killed in te rror attacks. As opposed to other such casualties, whose surviving relatives are mentioned in detail, the site only says: “Survived by: family.”

At Talmei Eliyahu, a small community of 300, one third of whom vote Likud, they know that despite the cease-fire, the next siren is not far. At the entrance to the greenhouses, election slogans from 1999 are still on one of the walls: “Israel wants change, Ehud Barak.” Shlomo, a local resident, shows me a clip in which Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman promises in an interview before he entered the government that if appointed, he would give then-Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh 48 hours to return the civilians and bodies held in Gaza – or he will be killed.

“Where did he disappear to? Where are the promises?” Shlomo wonders.  Abutbul says Lieberman’s promises were false. “Our children are being raised in a life of sirens and red alerts. And as for me, I was raised with Palestinians. Until two years ago I’d send my workers who lived there money as a humanitarian thing, but the truth is they understand only force and if we can, we should hit them hard. There’s a generation and a half there raised on hatred, on economic distress and they don’t know anything else and so there’s no chance to rehabilitate them. But what about our children? Before they talk about rehabilitating Gaza, first of all they should rehabilitate us,” Abutbul says.