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Brothers in Farms: Israel’s Response to the War-Time Labour Crisis

By Randy Pinsky


When Hamas attacked the south of Israel on October 7, 2023, farms experienced a triple labour devastation; reservists called to military duty, the emergency return of thousands of Thai workers, and Palestinian permits cancelled for security reasons. This has resulted in the worst manpower crisis in Israel's history.

Without experienced workers to harvest the produce, profits are literally shriveling on the vine. Although international and local volunteers have been able to salvage the current harvest and offset some economic strain, what is the long-term solution?

More Than Just Pomegranates

In 2021, Israeli agriculture brought in a profit of 32 billion shekels ($8 billion), accounting for 2.5% of its gross domestic product. 75% of vegetables, 20% of fruit and 6.5% of milk are produced in the very fertile lands near the Gaza border.

Israel’s agricultural system is heavily reliant on tens of thousands of foreign - mostly Thai - workers, and Palestinians (though they are more in construction).

Almost overnight, half of Israel’s 40,000 agricultural labourers had disappeared, “leaving crops to rot in the fields and livestock to fend for themselves.” Nor has this only affected farms in the south; the whole of the country is feeling the pinch.

As a result, Israel’s battle is thus raging on two fields - against Hamas and to save its food supply. 

Back to the Roots

Israel is mostly known for its high-tech companies and start-ups, however “agriculture still plays an important role in the country’s emotional heart.” Central to its raison d’être and beginnings, working off the land for self-sufficiency has always been a critical cornerstone of its identity.

Israeli farmers are still reeling from the loss of family and friends, and must contend with vandalized irrigation and power supplies, and devastated fields. As noted by The Jerusalem Post, “the farms themselves have suffered significant damage, including incineration by Hamas terrorists, fields torn up by military vehicles, structures damaged by rocket or mortar fire, and locations commandeered by the army.” 

Starting Anew

In times of crisis, the only way to go is up.

“The vegetables don’t see the pain, feel the wounds or hear the sounds of war,” stated one farmer, and nor do the livestock. Setbacks are thus viewed as “opportunities to regroup;” a “resilience that’s seemingly ingrained in the psyche of the Israelis of legend.”

With a small window of time in which to harvest the crops, farmers have appealed to the wider community for help. Many fear that without sufficient aid, the country- which has long prided itself on being self-sufficient - will have to import shipments of food staples.

[1] Again

From full-time workers to university professors, students and engineers, Israelis responded in the hundreds, accompanied by a wave of support from abroad (the American cowboys being a prime example).

Leket Israel- an organization that redistributes surplus food to those in need - quickly pivoted to partnering with schools and groups as part of the nationwide movement to help pick, plant and protect.” It has also purchased produce as supermarket chains, impatient with delivery delays, have found alternative sources, compounding the struggle.

Being able to support one’s country in a time of need has reinforced the feeling of unity. As a farm guard stated, “[soldiers at the frontlines] are helping the present- I am helping the future.”

Forestalling a Food Crisis (For Now)

The army of volunteers have helped save the current crop, but this is far from a sustainable solution. They lack the endurance, strength, stamina and skill (and availability), are unfamiliar with the nuances of agriculture, and there is little time to properly train them. Stipends and scholarship incentives to work in the field moreover, have been unsuccessful in attracting a large number of applicants.

So the government must look abroad. 

Finding Alternative Sources of Labour

While around 3,000 Thai workers returned by January, long-term planning is challenging with their 5-year work visas.

Israel has engaged in talks with countries such as Malawi and Kenya as well as Southeast Asian nations, to find skilled labourers who are accustomed to a hot climate. 

‘Supply Shocks’ to the Economy

Problems with manpower shortage are additionally complicated by the reliance on Palestinian labour. Since the start of the war, Palestinian work permits have been cancelled, impacting between 10-20,000 farm workers from the West Bank and Gaza.

The ban has created ‘supply shocks’ in Israel, in addition to severely harming the economy in the West Bank.

Faced with dwindling savings, few local jobs and no social security, many Palestinians complain they are being ‘collectively punished’ for something they were not a part of.

The problem with this rationale is that many Palestinians support Hamas, and some farm workers were discovered to have been informants for the massacre. As such, while Israel has reiterated its war is with the Hamas terrorists and not the Palestinian people, the nuance is understandably blurred. 


The security ban on Palestinian workers has had ricocheting effects in several industries, predominantly construction. With repercussions on the housing market and Israeli economy, many Israeli businesses have called for a reconsideration of the policy.

Proponents argue that continuing the barring of Palestinian workers “carries the risk of fueling fresh anger and disillusionment in the West Bank by removing what many policymakers view as a key economic valve in keeping the motivation for terror in check.” The work bans (and loss to profit) has also run up to $830 million per month.

Business owners assert that the employees are skilled in the work and have been thoroughly vetted by the Shin Bet security service. Many state they would prefer waiting for their return than engage (and have to train) foreign labourers. 

The IDF vs the Knesset

In response to pressure from factories and businesses, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) announced a proposal in mid-December to allow the return of between 8-10,000 Palestinian workers from the West Bank to their jobs with increased checkpoints and security measures.

This is not a perspective shared by the Knesset, however, particularly ministers on the far-right.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir has been strongly opposed, claiming that it opens the doors to a potential security threat. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich echoed that “A country desiring life, doesn't allow enemy citizens entry during times of war.”

Businesses facing bankruptcy and economic collapse have criticized such statements as being made by politicians who are “disconnected from Israel on the ground,” ignoring the situation and stalling on a long-term resolution. 


So what is the solution?

With so many nuanced concerns and issues, that remains to be seen. 



[1] ‘Pioneers’, the name for the early developers of the modern state of Israel. 

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