Touching the side of his neck gingerly, 30-year-old Withawat Kunwong reveals a jagged network of scars he received after being attacked at a poultry farm where he had been working in southern Israel.
The wound, Kunwong says, is a painful reminder of the fear and trauma he endured on October 7 when thousands of Hamas fighters broke through Israel’s border defenses in an unprecedented surprise attack.
The farm he had been working on was located in the Holit kibbutz, an agrarian community near the Gaza Strip. He was livestreaming from the farm when loud explosions were heard and thick black plumes of smoke rose into the air as rockets flew overheard.
He recalled hiding for hours that day but was discovered by a man he recalled as being a Palestinian dressed in civilian clothes who tried to cut his throat with a kitchen knife, after he “refused to surrender”. A savage fight ensued.
After the violent struggle with his attacker, Kunwong was left for dead, heavily bleeding from the wound in his throat. He was eventually found and cared for by other migrant workers. He managed to survive, he believes, because the knife had been blunt and broken.
“He couldn’t finish the job,” he told CNN. “This injury still hurts but I feel the hurt inside more,” he added.
His story is a tragic illustration of the human toll of the ongoing war that has claimed thousands of lives in both Israel and Gaza and displaced more than a million people in the Hamas-controlled territory.
Hamas has described its brutal attack as an assault on Israel. But so many of those murdered and kidnapped by the militant group’s fighters were also foreign nationals.
According to an estimate released by the Israeli Government Press Office last week, 135 hostages holding foreign passports from 25 different countries are being held in the Gaza Strip.
Among many of the foreign nationals killed and kidnapped are migrant laborers like Kunwong from Asian countries such as Thailand, Nepal and the Philippines – many who were working in Israel’s southern district near the Gaza strip, and unprotected, when Hamas militants came.
Thailand, for decades, has been one of Israel’s biggest sources of migrant labor.
At least 32 Thais have been killed in the conflict to date, one of the highest death tolls for foreign nationals, according to figures released by the Thai government.
“No worker – Israeli or Thai – should be used as cannon fodder,” said Yahel Kurlander, an academic from Tel-Hai College in northern Israel who has been focusing her research on labor issues in Israel’s agriculture industry.
Working with aid groups on the ground, Kurlander said that while the majority of Thai workers left in Israel are “totally safe”, supporting their families back home remained a key priority. And they feel pressured on two sides.
“The Thai government is asking them to evacuate and leave Israel but there is also pressure is from the Israeli side, telling them: ‘We need you, stay, we’ll give you extra money for that,” Kurlander said, adding that they deserved compensation.
For migrant laborers working in Israel’s agricultural, construction and healthcare sectors, there is little sign the war is going to ease any time soon.
Heavy fighting continues daily and the UN has warned that “civil order” in Gaza was deteriorating following weeks of siege and bombardment. Israel has expanded its ground operation inside Gaza in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the “next stage of war.”
Palestinians experienced what they have described as the heaviest and most intense round of airstrikes so far overnight, taking shelter from the bombardment in hospitals. A communications blackout has disrupted emergency services and cut off contact between family members. Some communications were restored Sunday morning
Many of the kibbutz farm fields on the Israeli side of the border that were targeted by Hamas now echo with the sound of artillery fire from tanks and howitzers bombardinng the crowded strip.
‘Business as usual’ for Thai workers, aid groups say
The Thai government has called for the release of all remaining citizens being held in Gaza. So far at least 33 Thai nationals have been killed, according to figures shared by Thai authorities with CNN – with 18 Thai nationals still being held hostage as of October 26.
“We reiterate our strong call for the release of the remaining hostages, including our nationals, as soon as possible,” Deputy Prime Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara said, adding that those kidnapped and killed had mostly been farm workers who were there to earn a living and had “no involvement in the conflict.”
Like many Thai migrant laborers working in Israel, Kunwong is from Udon Thani, one of Thailand’s poorest provinces. Life there is a far cry from the air-conditioned malls and traffic clogged streets of Bangkok. Jobs are harder to come by and wages are much lower, leading many to seek employment thousands of miles from home.
Families told CNN that, despite the conflict in Israel, Thai migrant workers were under pressure to honor contracts specifying minimum five years of labor – a heavy price to pay to support their families back home.
Groups like Aid for Agricultural Workers (AAW), which support foreign migrants, have highlighted what they call “extreme challenges” experienced by many, saying it was still “business as usual” in Israel.
Zohar Shvarzberg of AAW said there were increasing reports of laborers who were pressured to return to their former workplaces in order to receive their wages for September, the month before the initial Hamas attack.
“We empathize with the distress caused to farmers and farming communities by the labor shortage but no person should be forced to be where they feel unsafe,” she said. Following announcements by Thailand’s embassy in Tel Aviv that rescue flights would operate daily, she added, there was now a “fear of increasing pressure on Thai workers to stay and work, including through unethical and illegal means.”
Kunwong was one of the more fortunate Thai workers who made it out of Israel and has reunited with his wife and young daughter in Udon Thani.
The family of another young Thai worker, Manee Jirachart, 29, who previously spoke to CNN, reiterated hopes their son would eventually return home safely.
Manee had been working as a cleaner at a government office in southern Israel near Gaza for nearly five years when he was abducted and taken hostage by Hamas militants.
Speaking to CNN from the blue painted home Manee’s wages helped pay for, his father Chumporn made a tearful plea.
“I have no words,” he said. “I just want my son back.”