Some have come from the north of Israel, others from the south. Some have come as far as Europe and the United States, but all have come for the same reason: To pick tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, avocados and any other produce being grown next to the Gaza Strip.
They aren’t farmers by profession but scientists, tech entrepreneurs and real estate agents. They have come to help with the severe labor shortage that has existed in the area since October 7. More than 70 percent of Israel’s agriculture comes from areas near the Gaza Strip. In recent years, Palestinians and workers from countries such as Thailand have come to farm, till and harvest the land, making up around half of Israel’s agricultural workforce. But since October 7, when Hamas terrorists murdered 32 Thai workers and kidnapped 23, many Thai workers have returned home and most Palestinian workers are not allowed entry from Palestinian territories. Israeli farmers were also among the victims killed on October 7, and others are away serving in the reserves. Without this labor force, fruit and vegetables have been left to rot. “Israel’s agriculture is in its biggest crisis since the establishment of Israel,” Yuval Lipkin, deputy director general of Israel’s Agriculture Ministry, has told various media outlets.
In response, numerous volunteers have jumped in to help by planting strawberries, cleaning leeks and picking ripe avocados. They hope to save as much as 30 percent of the produce. But every day that the war in Gaza continues is another day picking under the constant threat of rocket attacks. These volunteers have as little as seven seconds to seek shelter from the time a siren starts to the impact of the rocket. In the open fields, safe places to find shelter are hard to come by.
In the accompanying videos, journalist Eli Katzoff visits farms in the Gaza envelope to interview volunteers spending the day picking tomatoes. There he speaks with Omri Linder, a member of “Brothers in Arms” who helped organize that day’s volunteering efforts. “Brothers in Arms” was a major anti-government movement during the judicial overhaul protests but after October 7 quickly pivoted and is currently one of the largest volunteer organizations in Israel. Linder, who is from Tel Aviv, explains that there is still rocket fire in the area and they have been instructed to hide behind equipment like a tractor, kneel down and cover their heads to protect themselves from rockets as well as falling fragments left by Iron Dome.
One woman Elaine Karniel from central Israel explains why she has come. “This is our lifeline,” she says. “Israel is the only place for Jews to live and if we don’t keep it up and running we don’t have anywhere to go.”
On October 7, Karniel was actually visiting friends at this same farm in southern Israel with her six kids, husband and dog. She remembers the rockets overhead and being evacuated by the IDF. She says returning to the area to pick produce was eerie.
Yedidya Fraiman from Jerusalem explains that he is here to make sure the produce doesn’t rot but also “to show solidarity with our fellow countrymen, to show we are here.” He says that in some ways picking produce is really for his benefit: “If I weren’t doing this I would be sitting watching TV and just pacing the house.”
Watch Eli’s full report here:
With additional research and reporting from Sarah Breger