Israeli farms, core to the country’s national identity, for years employed Palestinian and Thai workers. But since the Hamas-led terror attack on Oct. 7 and the war in Gaza, most Palestinians have been banned from Israel and many fearful Thais have returned home, leaving growers to scramble for labor.
“My workers are gone because of the war; I’m panicking,“ said Gabi Swissa, 61, from his farm outside Kadima in central Israel. For decades, he has counted on Palestinians and Thais to plant, harvest and pack strawberries.
Mr. Swissa, a former soldier from an elite combat unit who suffers from PTSD, was in tears. Volunteers he had expected to help on his farm one day last week had not shown up.
The vision of a food-secure homeland has for decades driven Israel’s economic policies and shaped its self-image as a nation that made the desert bloom. But now, as the country is focused on fighting a war and rescuing hostages held captive by Hamas, it is also struggling to run the farms that underpin its identity.
“Israeli agriculture is in the biggest crisis since the establishment of the state in 1948,” said Yuval Lipkin, deputy executive director of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Since the outset of the war, he said, farms are lacking at least 15,000 workers.
Agricultural estates along the southern and northern borders play a role not only in the country’s vaunted agriculture sector but also in its defense.
The border farms are most at risk from Palestinian militants, and they are considered crucial to the nation’s security. Residents of farming communities along the border with Gaza, though devastated in last month’s attack, helped keep the terrorists from penetrating deeper into Israel and reaching larger urban centers.
“Our farmers are our heroes on the border,” said Mr. Lipkin. “We need those farmers.”
Israel needs farmers, but the farmers need laborers to do the hard work of planting vegetables and picking fruit, milking cows and raising honeybees.
The contribution of agriculture to the Israeli economy has shrunk as the country has become a tech powerhouse, commonly called “start-up nation.” Still, about 75 percent of Israel’s vegetables are grown in the south near the Gaza Strip, where the war is raging. Before the war, the country’s agriculture sector employed some 30,000 foreign workers, mostly from Thailand, and an additional 9,000 Palestinians. About 1,200 people were killed by terrorists in the Oct. 7 attack, according to Israeli officials, including 32 Thai citizens. In addition, 25 Thais were kidnapped and taken to Gaza as hostages.
Avocados, apples, oranges, plums and peaches grow in the north near the Lebanon border, where Israeli soldiers are clashing with Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia. Thousands of Israeli families have been evacuated from vulnerable areas in both the south and the north, and many growers are grappling with how to maintain their operations.
In the aftermath of the attack, at least 7,000 Thai workers returned to their home country, Mr. Lipkin said. Work permits issued by Israel to Gazans were immediately annulled and West Bank residents were barred from entering the country. And the war Israel launched in response has resulted in the deaths of 10,000 Gazans, both civilians and members of Hamas, according to health officials in the Hamas-controlled enclave.
Driven by a back-to-the-earth ethos, Jewish pioneers who began arriving late in the 19th century established agrarian collectives known as kibbutzim, that they worked themselves.
After the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, Israeli farms began hiring workers from the occupied West Bank and Gaza. But in the 1980s new restrictions were imposed on Palestinians following the protests, violent riots and terror attacks of the intifada. Thais, who had been informally migrating to do field work, began receiving visas in much larger numbers.
“The sort of open gate for Palestinians closed,” said Adriana Kemp, a sociologist at Tel Aviv University who studies labor migration. “What I call the ‘great replacement’ began in the ’90s.”
Israeli growers who hired Thai workers found them a more regular labor force than Palestinians, who could be delayed at border checkpoints or barred from entering Israel.
But now, said Ms. Kemp, “for the first time, Israeli agriculture can’t rely on a continuous stream of workers.”
At a tomato farm last week less than three miles from the Gaza Strip, only five of the 35 Thai workers that Noam Amir and his brothers employed before the war are still on the job.
“I told the workers who wanted to leave that I needed help, and I would be more than happy to give them a raise,” said Mr. Amir. “But they didn’t want to stay. I respect their feelings.”
He paid them their final salary, he said, and they flew home.
In recent weeks, Israeli officials have held talks with representatives from Vietnam and other countries about potential worker agreements. But it could be months before anyone arrives.
Sign-on bonuses are being offered to Israelis willing to work in the fields, and soldiers could be enlisted to help harvest crops in border areas, officials said.
Adding to the farmers’ stress, Israelis who had been employed on farms, as tractor drivers, machine operators and managers, are among the 360,000 citizens who have been called up for military service.
Now, just ahead of the harvest, or smack in the middle of it, many growers are hoping volunteers can keep them afloat.
“Without the volunteers, my business would not exist in another three months,” said Yuval Shargian, who farms 40 acres in Tzofit, and had relied on Palestinians and Thais for 25 years.
On a recent morning, some 30 people — among them computer programmers, college students and a former Mossad agent — stood in a shed snipping, cleaning and packing leeks and squash. Another group, in the fields, did the stooped labor of planting broccoli and picking zucchini, their sneakers caked in mud, sweat streaming down their faces.
The day after the grisly Hamas attack, Mr. Swissa, the strawberry grower, faced a reality: There was no one to do the vital preparation work to ensure his strawberry plants would thrive and be ready for the winter harvest.
He decided to scale back production, but he still needed volunteers to save part of his crop.
After they failed to show up on a recent Monday, he reached out to a nonprofit. Word spread rapidly across social media that he was “desperate” for volunteers.
By Tuesday morning, he had received 2,000 calls and 3,000 text messages. More than 150 people, including a busload of high school students, reported to the fields.
Mr. Swissa barked orders at them to little effect. Then several adults appointed themselves crew leaders, divvying up the tasks among different teams.
“I knew nothing about this work before this morning,” said Ofer Buchnik, a software engineer who brought along his teenage son to volunteer. Under the sweltering sun, they stretched long plastic sheets over rows of tiny strawberry plants, and deposited bags filled with soil alongside them to hold them down.
“We thought we would pitch in one day, but we see there is great need,” said Alon Shachar, a team leader, adding, “I’ll be back tomorrow.” Others also said they planned to return.
By early afternoon, most of one field was ready, with strawberry sprouts poking out of the ground.
Mr. Swissa was beaming. “Israel has to fight the war and bring back the hostages,” he said. “Farms need to keep working to feed our people.”
Then a volunteer, Schlomit Eliakim, her fingers deep in the dirt, shouted out: “What will happen when we have to return to our jobs? That’s the big question.”
Gal Koplewitz contributed research.