Farmers from the Arava farming village of Hatzava clashed with members of the National Immigration Authority's Oz Unit on Monday during a raid to arrest foreign workers, resulting in an hours-long confrontation and the need for police intervention.
The Oz Unit said it received intelligence of nine Thai agricultural workers who had overstayed their visas and were living and working on the farms under false names.
When Oz Unit members raided the farms, "the farmers threatened their lives, punctured the tires of their vehicles, and didn't let them leave for four hours," said Oz Unit Spokeswoman Sabine Hadad.
Thai nationals who were taken into custody by Oz were freed by the farmers, who broke into Oz vehicles.
Dimona Police were called to the scene, and managed to calm down the two sides. The Oz unit subsequently left the village without the Thai workers.
"We will return and capture them," vowed Hadad.
Oz Unit members have filed a complaint to police, accusing the farmers of assault and harassing public workers.
"The farmers are justifying their actions through permits they received allowing them to employ a number of foreign workers, but there is no connection to that issue," Hadad said. "The workers were here illegally."
"This was a violent and very brutal act. We expect Israeli citizens to respect the law," she added.
But a Hatzava farmer had an altogether different version of events, telling The Jerusalem Post that he was misled by the Oz Unit into allowing its members access to his farm, before a surprise raid was launched.
Benny Ben-Simhon said he received a call from the Oz Unit asking to survey his farm and to see how many workers he required. "I believed their claim and allowed them on the farm. Then it backfired, and the officer suddenly said, 'We are arresting two of your workers.'"
Ben-Simhon's claim was denied by Hadad, who said, "Oz Unit members are under clear instructions to identify themselves and tell employers they have arrived to conduct a check of the identities of foreign workers."
Ben-Simhon said the confrontation was caused by deep-rooted resentment on the part of the farmers at the Interior Ministry's "determination to cause us irreversible damage."
"We have been farming here in the Arava for 45 years. The government, and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, have decided to cut the number of foreign workers. I can't tell you how much damage this is causing us," Ben-Simhon said.
"When the workers' visas run out, we don't receive fresh workers to replace them. I need seven workers on my farm. Today, Oz came to take away two. And the two they chose did have valid visas. They had passports. They were only meant to leave two months from now," he added.
"We're not getting the workers we need. Our difficulties are not being taken into consideration. But the Interior Ministry cannot break our spirits. We tell them we need more workers, and they turn around and take workers from us. It's simply absurd," Ben-Simhon continued.
He stressed that his Thai employees were housed in air-conditioned private residences and were afforded high quality conditions. "They worked the land for five years, and this is how they are repaid?" Ben-Simhon asked.
"My farm is seriously behind. I've never been in such deep economic trouble. This is why farmers from all over the Arava arrived today, and formed a wall to block the Oz Unit. Oz wants to take the little that we have left."
"The Arava is the vegetable belt of Israel. Today we are on the brink of collapse. What does the government want from us?" he asked.
On Monday evening, Interior Ministry Director-General Gabriel Maimon telephoned the Arava Tihona Regional Council, where the village of Hatzva is situated, and instructed municipal officials to tell farmers to cooperate with Oz's enforcement activities.
Hadad confirmed a claim by farmers that the Oz Unit did not notify the police of Sunday's raid, but added, "We are not obligated to coordinate all of our activities with the police. We only do that when we require police protection, for example during raids on brothels."