A peaceful demonstration deteriorated into a skirmish with police as farmers sat in the middle of Highway 44 and blocked traffic at the Beit Dagan junction in Rishon Lezion on Sunday morning.
The protest, which was supposed to take place in front of the agriculture minister's office at the Volcani Institute in Beit Dagan - the research arm of the Agriculture Ministry - moved to the highway after demonstrators were denied entrance to the gated campus, despite having a police permit to hold the rally inside.
The farmers were protesting the government's policy limiting the import of Thai workers.
Roughly 200 farmers from across the country came to Beit Dagan to cry out against the shortage of workers allowed into Israel. The farmers say the government is reneging on an agreement to allow additional Thai workers to enter the country and as a result, they face severe losses.
The protesters were surprised that they weren't admitted to the campus.
"We received a permit from the police on Thursday to hold the demonstration in the parking lot outside [of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Minister] Shalom Simhon's office. Now the security officer is telling us we cannot enter," said Dror Almagor, one of the protest organizers.
Some protesters did, however, enter the campus from a different entrance and the result was that the demonstration continued with protesters on both sides of a locked gate, separated by police officers and other security personnel.
Things heated up even further after a fire was sparked in an open area next to the fence. It is unclear whether it was lit deliberately or as a result of a carelessly thrown cigarette butt, but the result was that a fire truck was called in. When the gate was opened for the truck, several of the protesters made it through the gate.
"We are here to show that Israel's farmers are not weak, and need not be pitied. We are only demanding that we receive what the government agreed to, so that we can do our jobs and make a living," said event organizer Moshe Kirshner. "There is no country in the world that treats its farmers like Israel. We refuse to be discriminated against any longer."
The farmers were of two minds as to what would be the most effective form of protest, with some suggesting further actions like blocking roads with tractors and farming equipment to gain attention and others suggesting a marketing freeze that would cause a spike in produce prices.
"People don't understand that this isn't just about the Thai workers, this is something that impacts on the whole agricultural sector," said Irit Mashiach, a nursery owner from Moshav Tzur Moshe, near Netanya.
"For every Thai worker there are five Israelis whose jobs are affected. I'm talking about truck drivers, packaging workers, sales staff, consultants and others. If I don't have workers it means I can't get my produce out there. Right now, we're stuck with fruit rotting on the trees because we have no one to pick it," she said.
Mashiach explained that for the past few months the government has been operating a closed skies policy regarding foreign workers. That means that no new workers come to replace those who leave because their working permits expire.
When asked whether there was local manpower for hire, Mashiach said that Israelis refused to work in agriculture.
"Farmers post hirings on job boards regularly, but no Israelis are willing to do the hard work that is required. It's not even about the money. I have to spend nearly twice as much for a Thai worker as for a Israeli. True they get low wages, but I also have to take care of food and shelter for them and take care of the social welfare," Mashiach said.
"Thai workers are better suited to the type of work we need. They come to Israel because in five years they can save up enough money to return to Thailand and retire," said Reuven Barabi, a flower grower from Moshav Nitzanei Oz, just inside the Green Line, near Tulkarm.
"During their time here they gain experience and learn how to do the job in the best possible way. Any Israeli that I'll hire, will work for six months and then leave because it's too hard. The Thai workers have an incentive to stay because they make seven times what they would in their home country," Barabi said.
Aryeh Getzler has been working in agriculture since 1952 and he said things were never so bad for farmers.
"Being a farmer is always a risk. You are dependent on the water situation, on temperatures, on the market, but now we have the additional risk of the government not upholding its word... I have no doubt that the Ministry of Finance is actively trying to do away with agriculture in Israel. They want the water we use and the land we cultivate. They see that it isn't in use and reckon we shouldn't have it," he said.
Getzler said he is very pessimistic regarding the future of the sector in Israel.
"Little by little all the smaller growers will go bankrupt or figure they can do better in other sectors. The only ones left will be the large-scale commercial giants. Believe me, they know how to take care of themselves."
When the protesters saw they were getting nowhere at the gate, they decided to move the demonstration to a far more public space - the middle of Highway 44. Though they were only blocking the road for a few minutes, their demonstration caused traffic jams that could be felt all the way to the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv. The farmers moved aside only when the police threatened arrests.
"I think we succeeded in what we came here to do, but this is not the end. We will continue to find ways of bringing the topic to the public agenda and we will be creative about it. Today was an impromptu demonstration with a couple of hundred of people. Next time we'll be better organized and have thousands," said Almagor.
A source in the Agriculture Ministry said that though the ministry couldn't come out against government policies, people in the ministry were on the farmer's side. "There is an agreement with the Ministries of Finance and Interior, but for some reason it isn't being honored," the source said.
According to the Agriculture Ministry's spokeswoman, the decisions regarding the employment of foreign workers are made by the government according to the needs of the market and the available Israeli workforce, and in an effort to minimize the reliance on foreign workers in favor of Israelis.
She said that the long-term plan is to replace human farm labor with machines and that for that purpose the ministry has set up a fund worth NIS 250 million to help subsidize 40 percent of any new labor saving machinery that a farmer purchases. The spokeswoman said that the ministry was in favor of "opening the skies" to foreign workers as long as it was in line with the multiple-year plan.
At the Interior Ministry, the body in charge of foreign workers, the response was that "the ministry is currently working on balancing the files [checking the number of issued permits against the number of workers currently in the country] for Israel's farmers, in an effort to examine the necessity of bringing in new workers. Those who need more will be able to order them according to existing quotas."
The Interior Ministry is currently engaging in a major campaign to rid the country of illegal workers and has come under intense criticism from members of Knesset, human rights organizations and the public for continuing to bring in new workers while a mass deportation is taking place.