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Israelis in Thailand Determined to Get Home

Chabad House in Bangkok usually is for Israeli tourists visiting the Thai capital. (Tommy Walker/VOA)
Chabad House in Bangkok usually is for Israeli tourists visiting the Thai capital. (Tommy Walker/VOA)

As the world watches the war in Gaza unfold, many Israelis in Thailand say they are desperate to get home to assist their country in its battle against Hamas. Israeli nationals are cutting short their Southeast Asia trips so they can aid their country’s war effort.

Thailand is a popular place for Israelis with more than 159,000 visiting from January to September of this year, according to Thai government data.

Located in old Bangkok, a couple of streets away from the traveler-centric Khao San Road, Chabad House is where many Israeli visitors congregate while touring the Thai capital. The Jewish community house has been a mainstay in the city for nearly three decades.

Despite the tight security, it normally has a welcoming atmosphere. Since the Hamas attacks on Israel, however, the mood has soured.

Rabbi Nechemia Wilhelm, the director of Chabad House, says the Hamas attacks have prompted many Israelis to come and seek community help.

Rabbi Nechemia Wilhelm is the director of Chabad House in Bangkok, a Jewish community center for Israelis in Thailand. (Tommy Walker/VOA)
Rabbi Nechemia Wilhelm is the director of Chabad House in Bangkok, a Jewish community center for Israelis in Thailand. (Tommy Walker/VOA)

"Soon as everybody heard about [the] disaster in Israel, everybody came to get together to see how they can get back home, because a lot of them are young soldiers released from the army. They want to go back and protect our brothers and sisters," he told VOA.

"It’s hard to get flights, but where we were able to help many people to go back ... [to] families of people that were killed, it was very, very hard to see their faces," he added. "Here, I believe during this week, we passed over a dozen people. In general, from Thailand I believe a few thousand people went back to Israel."

Chabad House Manager Meni Macach was a former commander in the Israeli army for six years. He says he wants to return to Israel, but he can’t right now.

"I’m divorced and have two daughters," he told VOA. "The daughters stay with me and study here. So now if I go, I know it’s not 100% I come back."

El Al flights

Despite international airlines canceling flights to Israel, direct flights between Bangkok and Tel Aviv are continuing with Israeli flagship airline El Al, aiding Israel nationals to return.

On Friday evening, Israel Ambassador to Thailand Orna Sagiv posted a photo on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. It showed hundreds of Israelis queuing for their flights home.

Ori, who declined to share his last name due to security concerns, is an Israeli national and former biotech student who was on holiday in Vietnam last week when he received news of the Hamas attacks.

"The emotions — we have cried. You can’t have fun when you know you have a war at home, even when we are here [in Bangkok]," he told VOA. "When I heard about the news, I ran back to my hotel and tried to reach my family ... it was so stressful. We were all crying."

The 27-year-old was working in the pharmaceutical industry in Israel before he left for his trip. But returning home, he knows he’ll have a completely different task ahead of him.

"Everyone gets a call. I was called back. [I’ll be] in combat, but what exactly I’m going to do, I don’t know."

Military service is mandatory for Israelis once they reach the age of 18, with few exemptions. Men are expected to serve a total of 32 months while women serve for two years.

Avi, 27, who also declined to share her full name, is a medical professional in Israel. She also was taking a trip overseas, having spent a month in Nepal. She didn’t get a call to return, but she insists on going back.

"When I understood that it wasn't like anything we've ever experienced before, and then we got it ... we understood, we have to get straight home," she told VOA.

"You don't have to go back, like, by law, but everybody does. You don't stay silent. All of your friends are fighting. Everybody comes back. I don't have a warrant that makes me go home. I work as a doctor’s assistant in a community and hospital, so I know I’m needed," she said.

"Also, my family ... all my brothers, all my brothers-in-law. All my cousins are recruited. So there are a lot of kids who need to be watched over,” she added. “Everybody needs help, everywhere."

Both Ori and Avi were booked on direct flights Friday from Bangkok to Tel Aviv.

Thailand-Israel Facebook groups have been another good place for Israelis to find a way back home.

"Urgently looking for a ticket in El Al from Bangkok to Tel Aviv for tomorrow / day after tomorrow," one post shows in the Facebook group named Thailand Israel.

Other posts indicate that some Israelis have received an "Order 8," which is an emergency call-up for service.

But not all Israelis are finding it easy.

Elad, who also elected to share only his first name, is an Israeli tourist on the Thai island Koh Pha Ngan. He told VOA he was "stuck" after spending 53 days in Thailand.

"I don’t think they have regular flights to Israel. Soon, I will finish my 30-day extension, not sure what I can do. Maybe I’ll travel to Vietnam," he said.

According to local media, Thai immigration officials are allowing any Israeli tourists to extend their stay by 30 days if the conflict necessitates a protracted stay.

Given the chaos in Israel, some might want to avoid the conflict altogether. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, thousands of Russians fled for calmer shores in Thailand, many to avoid Moscow’s military draft and the effect of Western sanctions.