Stay in Israel, or flee? Thai workers caught up in Hamas attack and war are faced with a dilemma

Thai workers who were evacuated from Israel arrive at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Samut Prakarn Province, Thailand, on Oct. 12, 2023. (AP Photo/File)
Thai workers who were evacuated from Israel arrive at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Samut Prakarn Province, Thailand, on Oct. 12, 2023. (AP Photo/File)
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Updated 03 November 2023
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Stay in Israel, or flee? Thai workers caught up in Hamas attack and war are faced with a dilemma

Stay in Israel, or flee? Thai workers caught up in Hamas attack and war are faced with a dilemma
  • More than 7,000 Thais working in Israel have returned home on evacuation flights since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, but some 23,000 have decided to stay
  • At least 32 Thais have been reported killed, 23 are believed to have been abducted by Hamas, and many more may be missing

BANGKOK: When Hamas militants stormed into Israeli villages and towns along the border of the blockaded Gaza Strip last month, many Thai migrant agricultural workers shared the fate of hundreds of Israelis who were killed, kidnapped or forced to run for their lives.
Since that day nearly a month ago, more than 7,000 of some 30,000 Thais working in Israel have returned home on government evacuation flights. But many others have decided to stay, choosing to take the risk for the opportunity to earn wages far higher than at home.
Thailand reports that at least 23 Thais are believed to have been abducted by Hamas, which rules Gaza. It’s the largest single group of foreigners held by the militant group. Many more may be missing and 32 have been reported killed.
In a visceral illustration of the fate met by some, Israel’s UN envoy drew a rebuke from Thailand’s Foreign Ministry after showing the General Assembly a video last week of what he said was a Hamas fighter decapitating a Thai agricultural worker with a garden hoe as he lay on the ground.
“Such horrific brutality has stirred a sense of outrage not only among Thais, but undoubtedly people throughout the world,” the ministry said, criticizing the decision to show it as disrespectful to the victim and his family.
‘Please help my son stay safe’
Like many other Thai agricultural laborers in Israel, Natthaporn Onkeaw had been his family’s main breadwinner, sending money home regularly after going to Israel to work on a kibbutz in 2021.
The 26-year-old was among those abducted by Hamas, said his mother, 47-year-old Thongkun Onkeaw, who lives in a poor rural area in northeastern Thailand near the border with Laos.
He was one of the few Thai captives pictured in a photo released by Hamas whose names were later confirmed by the Thai Labor Ministry. His mother said she had not heard from him since he was taken, and no officials have given her or her husband any updates.
“I can only pray: Please help my son stay safe,” she told The Associated Press.
Thai media has followed developments in the conflict closely, with regular reports on the plights of the workers who have fled or chosen to stay, as well as what little is known about the hostages.
A video of one man, who was purported to be a Thai migrant worker being dragged away in a chokehold by a militant, has been widely circulated on social media. Identified as 26-year-old Kong Saleo by his wife, Suntree Saelee, he was allegedly taken from an avocado orchard when Hamas militants raided the worker’s camp.
“When I saw the picture and the clip, I knew it was him,” Suntree was quoted as saying in the Bangkok Post. “I am concerned for his safety. Please help him.”
Thai workers looking for higher wages
Farm laborers from Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia seek work in more developed countries where there is a shortage of semi-skilled labor — at wages considerably higher than what they earn at home.
Israel started bringing in migrant workers in earnest after the first Intifada, the 1987-93 Palestinian revolt, after employers began to lose trust in Palestinian workers.
Most came from Thailand, and they remain the largest group of foreign agricultural laborers in Israel today. The countries implemented a bilateral agreement a decade ago specifically easing the way for Thai agricultural workers. Many Palestinian workers had since returned, and before the Hamas attack about half of Israel’s workforce was made up of foreign and Palestinian laborers.
In recent years, Israel has come under criticism over the conditions in which the Thai farm laborers work. Human Rights Watch, in a 2015 report, said they often were housed in makeshift and inadequate accommodations and “were paid salaries significantly below the legal minimum wage, forced to work long hours in excess of the legal maximum, subjected to unsafe working conditions, and denied their right to change employers.” A watchdog group found more recently that most were still paid below the legal minimum wage.
To attract foreign workers back to evacuated areas, Israel’s Agriculture Ministry has said it will extend their work visas and give them bonuses of about $500 a month. The offer is tempting, compared to the approximately $1,800 lump sum Thailand’s government has made available to aid Thais fleeing Israel.
Beyond the official offers, Thailand’s government has warned that scammers have been messaging family members claiming to be looking to pay back wages or benefits, only to collect personal information and trick them into transferring money.
When the Israeli chicken farm where Sompong Jandai had been working since July was rocked with explosions in the early days of the Israel-Hamas war — sparked by Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 incursion into southern Israel — the 31-year-old first thought about going home.
But two things changed his mind: the salary he makes — more than eight times what he’d earn in Thailand — and knowing he can send the bulk of it home to support his wife and four children and pay off loans he took to finance the move to Israel.
“At first I thought about leaving,” he said. After being initially evacuated to a safer area, he came back to work at the farm.
Thailand’s efforts to get help
Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a telephone conversation Wednesday for help with Thais hostages.
Srettha has also been urging workers to come home, and wrote on X (formerly Twitter) on Thursday that the conflict is likely to expand.
“I would like to emphasize that the safety of our people is the most important thing,” he wrote. “Please return to our home.”
A Thai parliamentary delegation last week traveled to Iran, a Hamas ally, to meet with a Hamas representative and approach the issue from the other side.
Areepen Uttarasin, a Thai official who led the delegation, told reporters that the Hamas representative said the group would “try every possible way for all Thais held captive to return safely.” He did not identify the Hamas representative but said that he was told any releases had had been complicated by ongoing fighting.
In Israel, Yahel Kurlander, a volunteer who has been helping Thai workers in the aftermath of the attack, said she knows of at least 54 missing or kidnapped Thais. She said many bodies haven’t been identified yet.
Hours after the Hamas attack, Kurlander, a sociologist with Israel’s Tel-Hai College who specializes in agricultural labor migration with a focus on Thai workers, said she and other scholars and members of nongovernmental organizations started talking about what they could do to help.
“We just came to this realization,” she said. “If we won’t gather together and reach a hand to the Thai workers, nobody will.”
The first priority was to evacuate “highly traumatized” workers and provide food and other aid, she said. Now they’re reaching out to families of the missing, trying to gather details about tattoos or other identifying marks, and also help those who fled the Hamas rampage to return home or find new work. It’s important, she said, to give the workers “the freedom of choice.”
For Siroj Pongbut, that choice was to return home — at least until the fighting ends — even though he doesn’t make enough farming in Thailand to feed his wife and three children. The 27-year-old had been working as a farmhand in Israel for less than a month after more than a year of bureaucracy and borrowing money for the trip.
From that Saturday morning when Hamas attacked, he said he could hear sirens and explosions from the tomato farm where he worked. He made up his mind it wasn’t worth the risk to stay; about 150 of his coworkers at the farm stayed in Israel.
“I don’t know how it is going to be in the future,” he said by telephone while awaiting an evacuation flight from Tel Aviv last week. “I’m worried that it will become more serious.”


UN committee unable to agree on Palestinian bid for full membership

UN committee unable to agree on Palestinian bid for full membership
Updated 11 sec ago
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UN committee unable to agree on Palestinian bid for full membership

UN committee unable to agree on Palestinian bid for full membership
  • An application to become a full UN member needs to be approved by the Security Council, where Israel ally the United States can block it

UNITED NATIONS: A United Nations Security Council committee considering an application by the Palestinian Authority to become a full UN member “was unable to make a unanimous recommendation” on whether it met the criteria, according to the committee report seen by Reuters on Tuesday.
The Palestinian Authority is still expected to push the 15-member Security Council to vote — as early as this week — on a draft resolution recommending it become a full member of the world body, diplomats said.
Such membership would effectively recognize a Palestinian state. The Palestinians are currently a non-member observer state, a de facto recognition of statehood that was granted by the 193-member UN General Assembly in 2012.
But an application to become a full UN member needs to be approved by the Security Council, where Israel ally the United States can block it, and then at least two-thirds of the General Assembly.
The United States said earlier this month that establishing an independent Palestinian state should happen through direct negotiations between the parties and not at the United Nations.
The UN Security Council has long endorsed a vision of two states living side by side within secure and recognized borders. Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, all territory captured by Israel in 1967.
Little progress has been made on achieving Palestinian statehood since the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the early 1990s.
The Palestinian push for full UN membership comes six months into a war between Israel and Palestinian Hamas militants in Gaza, and as Israel is expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The Security Council committee on the admission of new members — made up of all 15 council members — agreed to its report on Tuesday after meeting twice last week to discuss the Palestinian application.
“Regarding the issue of whether the application met all the criteria for membership ... the Committee was unable to make a unanimous recommendation to the Security Council,” the report said, adding that “differing views were expressed.”
UN membership is open to “peace-loving states” that accept the obligations in the founding UN Charter and are able and willing to carry them out.


Assange extradition moves closer as US provides UK court with assurances

Assange extradition moves closer as US provides UK court with assurances
Updated 8 min 55 sec ago
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Assange extradition moves closer as US provides UK court with assurances

Assange extradition moves closer as US provides UK court with assurances
  • Extradition sought over release of classified information
  • Australia has urged US to drop charges against Assange

LONDON: The United States has provided assurances requested by the High Court in London which could finally pave the way for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be extradited from Britain.
Last month, the High Court ruled that, without certain US guarantees, Assange, 52, would be allowed to launch a new appeal against being extradited to face 18 charges, all bar one under the Espionage Act, over WikiLeaks’ release of confidential US military records and diplomatic cables.
Those assurances — that in a US trial he could seek a First Amendment right to free speech and that there was no prospect of new charges which could see the death penalty being imposed — have now been submitted by a deadline which fell on Tuesday.
The document, seen by Reuters, states that Assange “will have the ability to raise and seek to rely upon at trial the rights and protections given under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.” However it adds that a decision on the “applicability of the First Amendment is exclusively within the purview of the US courts.”
The document also says that a sentence of death will neither be sought nor imposed.
“These assurances are binding on any and all present or subsequent individuals to whom authority has been delegated to decide the matters,” it said.
There will now be a further court hearing in London on May 20, but his lawyers have previously described US assurances given in other cases as not “worth the paper they’re written on,” echoing similar criticism from human rights group Amnesty International.

’EXTREME DISTRESS’
Assange’s wife Stella, whom he married while in prison in London, said the guarantees did not satisfy their concerns, describing them as “blatant weasel words.”
“The United States has issued a non-assurance in relation to the First Amendment, and a standard assurance in relation to the death penalty,” she said in a statement.
“The diplomatic note does nothing to relieve our family’s extreme distress about his future — his grim expectation of spending the rest of his life in isolation in US prison for publishing award-winning journalism.”
There was no immediate comment from the US Department of Justice or a High Court spokesperson.
Last week, US President Joe Biden said he was considering a request from Australia to drop the prosecution, which Assange’s US lawyer described as “encouraging.”
It was not clear what influence, if any, Biden could exert on a criminal case, but the Wall Street Journal has also reported that discussions are underway about a potential plea bargaining deal.
Assange, who is an Australian citizen, has spent more than 13 years in various legal battles in the English courts since he was first arrested in November 2010.
To his many supporters, he is an anti-establishment hero who is being persecuted for exposing US wrongdoing and details of alleged war crimes in secret, classified files.
The US authorities argue he is not being prosecuted for the publication of the leaked materials, but for the criminal act of conspiring with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to unlawfully obtain them.
“The Biden administration must drop this dangerous prosecution before it is too late,” Stella Assange said.


Muslim school student loses UK court bid over prayer rituals ban

Michaela Community School is a state-funded but independently run school located in northwest London. (Shutterstock)
Michaela Community School is a state-funded but independently run school located in northwest London. (Shutterstock)
Updated 16 April 2024
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Muslim school student loses UK court bid over prayer rituals ban

Michaela Community School is a state-funded but independently run school located in northwest London. (Shutterstock)
  • The High Court in London hearing the case was told the ban introduced last year stemmed from several dozen students beginning to pray in the school’s yard

LONDON: A Muslim pupil lost a UK court challenge Tuesday against a top London school’s ban on prayer rituals, in a case about freedom of religion in schools that captured national attention.
The student, who cannot be named, took legal action against Michaela Community School in northwest London, claiming the policy was discriminatory and “uniquely” affected her faith due to its ritualized nature.
She argued the school’s prohibition of on-site prayer unlawfully breached her right to religious freedom and was “the kind of discrimination which makes religious minorities feel alienated from society.”
The school — state-funded but independently run and renowned for its academic achievement record and strict rules — countered that the policy imposed last year was justified.
The High Court in London hearing the case was told the ban introduced last year stemmed from several dozen students beginning to pray in the school’s yard, using blazers to kneel on, the BBC reported.
It then imposed the new rules due to concerns about a “culture shift” toward “segregation between religious groups and intimidation within the group of Muslim pupils,” the court reportedly heard.
In a written ruling, judge Thomas Linden dismissed the pupil’s arguments, ruling that by enrolling at the school she had effectively accepted being subject to restrictions on manifesting her faith.
He concluded that the prayer ritual policy was “proportionate” and that its aims and ability to achieve them “outweighs” any “adverse effects” on the rights of Muslim pupils at the school.
Responding to the decision Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher of Michaela Community School, said “a school should be free to do what is right for the pupils it serves.”
“The court’s decision is therefore a victory for all schools,” she added on X (formerly Twitter).
“Schools should not be forced by one child and her mother to change its approach simply because they have decided they don’t like something at the school.”
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan also welcomed the ruling, saying “headteachers are best placed to make decisions in their school.”
“Michaela is an outstanding school and I hope this judgment gives all school leaders the confidence to make the right decisions for their pupils.”


At least 66 killed in Afghanistan as heavy rains set off flash floods

At least 66 killed in Afghanistan as heavy rains set off flash floods
Updated 16 April 2024
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At least 66 killed in Afghanistan as heavy rains set off flash floods

At least 66 killed in Afghanistan as heavy rains set off flash floods
  • Number of reported casualties has doubled since Sunday
  • Many were killed when their homes collapsed on them

KABUL: Extreme rainfall in Afghanistan and devastating flash floods have killed at least 66 people and damaged homes, infrastructure, and farmlands across most of the country’s provinces, authorities said on Tuesday.

The storms, which started over the weekend, are adding to the challenges facing Afghanistan, which is still recovering from decades of conflict and natural disasters, including unprecedented droughts in the past four years, as well as a series of deadly earthquakes.

“According to primary reports from the provinces, at least 66 people lost their lives, and 36 others are injured,” Janan Sayeq, spokesperson of the National Disaster Management Authority, told Arab News on Tuesday.

The number of reported casualties has doubled since Sunday, raising fears the actual toll could be higher. Many of the victims were killed when their homes collapsed on them.

Sayeq said that 1,235 houses were destroyed.

Flash floods were reported in 23 of the country’s 34 provinces, damaging crops ahead of the harvest season, and further affecting food security in the country as UN agencies estimate that more than half of its population has been in need of humanitarian assistance.

“The wheat crops will be ready for collection in a few weeks. But the rainfalls could destroy most of it,” said Gul Hussain, a farmer from the eastern Laghman province, which is one of the main agricultural regions.

The impact of drought, and now also floods, has been devastating for rural families struggling with access to water.

“The floods have had severe effects on the lives of people in the southeast, southwest and east of the country and have caused loss of life and damage to houses, as well as economic and agricultural effects as crops are destroyed and livestock are killed,” Najibullah Sadid, a hydromophologist, told Arab News.

The country’s mountainous topography and reduced vegetation left little to no space for people to escape flood events, as preparedness and prevention in the face of the changing climate are almost nonexistent.

Water management infrastructure — such as check dams, trenches, terraces, and reservoirs that could help reduce flooding — is insufficient.

“For instance, Iran has 22 times more storage capacity and Pakistan 13 times more storage capacity than Afghanistan, making the country more vulnerable to floods during rainfalls,” Sadid said.

“Considering the increasing climate change effects as well as frequency and intensity of rainfalls, steps taken during the past two decades and now are limited and are not sufficient to control the situation.”


Indonesian coffee takes lead in Egyptian market 

Indonesian coffee takes lead in Egyptian market 
Updated 16 April 2024
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Indonesian coffee takes lead in Egyptian market 

Indonesian coffee takes lead in Egyptian market 
  • Indonesia is the world’s 4th-largest coffee producer and Asia’s second-biggest
  • Egypt was second-biggest export destination for Indonesian coffee in 2023, behind the US

JAKARTA: Indonesia has become Egypt’s main source of coffee, authorities said on Tuesday, as annual exports reached nearly $93 million, or about 43 percent of the market. 

Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest coffee producer and Asia’s second-biggest. In 2023, the Southeast Asian nation exported around 276,000 metric tons of the commodity worth almost $916 million, according to the Central Statistics Agency. 

Egypt was the second-biggest export destination for Indonesian coffee, just behind the US, accounting for about 5.2 percent of the country’s total coffee exports. 

“Indonesian coffee has successfully dominated the Egyptian market. Total export value reached $92.96 million, making Indonesia the biggest coffee-exporting country to Egypt in 2023,” Indonesian Ambassador in Cairo Lutfi Rauf said in a statement. 

“This shows how Indonesian coffee products are loved by Egyptian consumers. The unique aroma and flavor are the main factors attracting consumers from Egypt.” 

Indonesian officials held an annual meeting with Egyptian coffee buyers in Damanhour over the weekend, as they seek to foster good trade relations. 

“We hope to continue and to improve trade relations. If there are any challenges, everything can be discussed well for the prosperity and welfare of the people of both countries,” Rauf said. 

Indonesian officials have been increasing trade engagement with Egypt as a gateway for exports to other African countries in recent years, while Indonesian coffee producers are seeking to further their exports to the Middle East amid rising interest from the region. 

Hariyanto, a coffee exporter from East Java province, said promotion efforts by the Indonesian Embassy in Cairo have helped boost the popularity of Indonesian coffee in Egypt. 

“Egypt is a great market, and now there is a high demand for Indonesian-origin coffee products,” Hariyanto, a coffee exporter from East Java province, told Arab News. 

“Egyptians found a match in Indonesian-origin coffee, as there is a good fit in terms of price and taste.”