Fifty-four Thai nationals are among the 220 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, according to new figures released by the Israeli government. Almost all are believed to have been farm workers employed on the agricultural communities that bore the brunt of the terrorist attacks launched on southern Israel by the extremist organisation on 7 October.
Thais also made up the largest single group of foreign dead and missing, with 24 confirmed killed and 21 unaccounted for, the updated statistics revealed. In all, 1,400 people were killed in the attacks, mostly civilians.
Authorities in Bangkok have said that at least 33 of its nationals were killed and 18 wounded but that only 18 were among those taken hostage.
The Thai ministry of foreign affairs said on Thursday it was in the process of verifying the figure of 54 with Israeli authorities. The Thai prime minister, Srettha Thavisin, said it was possible the Israeli figure included a combination of confirmed deaths, abductions, and missing people.
Earlier this week, Israel dropped leaflets in Gaza offering a reward for hostage information in the latest effort to free those abducted, as the Israeli military continued preparing for an expected ground offensive.
Raids, airstrikes and artillery bombardment have so far killed more than 7,000 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health authorities in the enclave.
The Israeli government will struggle to reconcile its stated aim to “crush Hamas” while saving the lives of as many hostages as possible, analysts say.
So far, four female hostages have been released after negotiations brokered by Qatar, which is also believed to be trying to reach a deal in which 50 more dual nationals held by Hamas would be released.
Military experts have told the Guardian that a “kinetic tactical” effort to free the hostages was not feasible given current conditions, the numbers of hostages and their dispersed locations. Intense diplomatic efforts are continuing, with Qatar acting as a key intermediary.
Negotiations are complicated by the fact that more than half the estimated 220 hostages held by Hamas have foreign passports from 25 different countries.
Israel said 138 of the hostages had foreign passports, including 15 Argentinians, 12 Germans, 12 Americans, six French people and six Russians. Many were believed to have had dual Israeli nationality, however some, such as the Thais and five Nepalese hostages, almost certainly did not. There was also one Chinese hostage, one Sri Lankan, two from Tanzania and two from the Philippines.
Thailand is one of the largest sources of migrant workers in Israel, with about 30,000 Thais working in the agriculture sector, according to government data.
Thavisin said he was concerned that Thai workers were planning to stay in Israel for higher pay, despite escalating conflict.
“We have to improve the state of our economy here … so Thais don’t have to risk their lives,” Srettha said on Thursday in response to a question in parliament, adding that 4,000 Thais had been repatriated so far but others wanted to stay.
Additional reporting by Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok