The Shema, Judaism's most important prayer, written in the original ancient Hebrew script on a Klaf parchment from the skin of a kosher animal and proclaiming there is only one God.Photo Credit:  Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand has been negotiating directly with representatives of Hamas in Iran to release 23 Thai hostages from Gaza, the largest nationality among kidnapped foreigners.

Thailand also expressed "outrage" against Israel's U.N. ambassador for showing the General Assembly a "horrific" video of Hamas purportedly trying to decapitate a Thai laborer.

The 1,400 Israelis and foreigners killed by Hamas' Oct. 7 cross-border attack include at least 32 impoverished Thai agricultural workers slain near the Israel-Gaza frontier, officials said.

Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thaivisin talked by telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the 23 Thai hostages and said on November 1:

"If there there is any progress, he'll phone me.  And if there are any demands involved he will also inform us," Mr. Srettha said, according to November 2's Bangkok Post.

In Iran's capital Tehran, meanwhile, representatives of Hamas held direct negotiations with Buddhist-majority Thailand's Muslim Sunni and Shia officials.

Hamas told the three-man Thai delegation all Thai hostages would be freed only when Israel stops its assault into Gaza, according to the delegates.

The delegation was organized by Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, who is Parliament's president and a Sunni Muslim -- as are about 99 percent of Thailand's seven million Muslims.

Only one percent of Thailand's Muslims are Shia, said the Thai embassy in Saudi Arabia.

While Mr. Wan Muhamad remained in Bangkok updating parliament, his three-man team flew to Tehran, including Sunni representative Sayyid Mummin Sakkitticha.

The delegation also included Lerpong Sayed -- who is the brother of Saiyid Sulaiman Husaini, leader of Thailand's tiny Shia Muslim community -- and Areepen Utarasin, a former member of parliament who had represented southern Thailand's Muslim-majority Narathiwat province and an advisor to Mr. Wan Muhamad.

The delegates flew to Tehran "to start talks at 10 a.m. local time [October 26] at the headquarters of the Hamas envoy in Tehran, Iran," Mr. Saiyid Husaini's Facebook page said.

"Hamas has given a signal to Thai representatives that it will release Thai hostages immediately when the situation is safe, as they claimed that Israel is attacking all sides of the Gaza Strip to sacrifice foreign hostages to discredit Hamas," Mr. Saiyid Husaini said.

"The negotiations went smoothly."

Mr. Saiyid Husaini indicated that the best extraction route for Hamas to free the hostages is through the Gaza-Egypt border crossing at Rafah, which is controlled by Cairo.

On October 29, Prime Minister Srettha said, "A cabinet minister is now preparing to leave for the Middle East soon, on a mission to seek the release of the Thai hostages."

Mr. Srettha did not elaborate.

Israel meanwhile outraged Thailand by showing a video of a dead Thai laborer as an example of Hamas' cruelty.

"At a recent United Nations General Assembly meeting, a video clip was displayed of a victim, asserted to be Thai, inhumanely killed," Thailand's foreign ministry said on October 29).

"Such horrific brutality has stirred a sense of outrage not only among Thais, but undoubtedly people throughout the world.

"The Ministry disapproves of the display of such footage, which does not afford the proper respect and due consideration for the deceased and his family," the foreign ministry statement said.

On October 26, Israel's U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan showed diplomats in the 193-member General Assembly a brief video which he narrated.

"One can see a terribly injured civilian -- bloodied, yet alive -- laying on the ground as a Hamas savage, screaming 'Allah o Akbar', repeatedly pummels the man's neck with a garden hoe in order to decapitate him," the envoy told the assembly according to Reuters.

"Ambassador Gilad Erdan told diplomats the victim seen in the few seconds of footage he played for them on a tablet was not Israeli or Jewish, but an agricultural worker from Thailand," Reuters reported.

Informed about the video shown in the U.N., Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said on October 29:

"This is not good. The war is cruel enough. Doing that was like pouring fuel onto the fire.

"Thailand is a neutral country and not part of the conflict. We only want our people to be safe, and the hostages released as soon as possible," Mr. Srettha said according to the Bangkok Post.

Mr. Srettha earlier pointed at allegations that Thais were suddenly being financially exploited in Israel during the war.

"Thai laborers deserve much better care than this," Mr. Srettha said.

"I said [to Israel's Ambassador to Thailand Orna Sagiv] bluntly that it's unacceptable to lure people to stay with money," to allegedly convince Thais to continue working in Israel until the end of the year, Mr. Srettha said, according to Thai media.

The prime minister did not publicly specify who he perceived as allegedly offering money to Thai workers, or how much cash, or how many people were involved.

Mr. Srettha said he expected Tel Aviv to investigate his sketchy allegations because about 20,000 Thai workers are considering if they should stay in Israel, after about 8,000 others decided to return to Thailand.

Meanwhile on October 25, Reuters reported the Israeli government's updated tolls said Hamas held 54 Thai hostages.

Thai Prime Minister Srettha checked those numbers and said he could confirm 23 hostages.

"The number 54 may be the result of some sort of confusion," he said.

Thus far, all tallies put Thailand in first place among hostages' nationalities, with Argentina reportedly suffering 15 kidnapped alongside 12 Americans, a dozen Germans, six French, and six Russians among 40 countries awaiting hostages' freedom.

"We still do not know the fates of the Thai hostages," Thailand's prime minister said on October 24.

"However, we are using all methods, including the sending of high-level officials out there," Mr. Srettha said.

One day earlier, Mr. Srettha cryptically said, "Personal connections will also be used in negotiations."

The Thai government "is doing their best, and I know that they are in contact with Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and so on, and trying to bring back their Thai nationals, Iran's ambassador to Thailand Seyed Reza Nobakhti told reporters on October 20.

"There is a way to release the Thai hostages, because in the meeting between Iran and Mr. Haniyeh [Ismail Abdel Salam Ahmed Haniyeh, a senior political leader of Hamas], our leader explained to Hamas that the Thai people are like our brother-sisters and asked them to try to keep them safe.

"They said the Thai hostages are safe, and living with other Palestinian families, but unfortunately, Israelis keep bombarding all over, and this the problem," Iran's Ambassador Nobakhti said at a news conference called by the Thailand-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

"The first condition that I think will allow the release of foreign hostages is at least there should be a temporary ceasefire negotiation, which will provide a way to release hostages and other foreigners in Gaza who are ready to leave," the Iranian envoy said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Srettha's public description of his "blunt" conversation with Israel's ambassador to Thailand about money allegedly being used to "lure" Thais to stay in Gaza -- and the need for an Israeli investigation into his allegations -- raised some eyebrows.

"It is totally inappropriate to use such a tone with the ambassador," said Burapha University political science lecturer Olarn Thinbangtieo.

"Mr. Srettha might have won the applause of some Thais, but there is a tactful way to approach the matter because Thailand and Israel retain friendly ties," Mr. Olarn said, according to the Bangkok Post.

Israeli Ambassador Sagiv wrote a lengthy statement published on October 16 to the people of Thailand which ended:

"I implore you to stand together with the international community in condemning Hamas's brutal assault and affirming Israel's right to defend its territory and people.

"Let the world hear the unwavering voice of the Thai people, united in their opposition to these atrocities," Ms. Sagiv wrote.

Earlier, shortly after the Hamas assault, Thailand's foreign ministry issued a seemingly neutral statement:

"Thailand calls upon all parties involved to refrain from any actions that would further escalate tensions, and joins the international community in condemning any use of violence and indiscriminate attacks."

In 2012, bloodshed and bumbling stained Thailand's relations with Iran when police busted, interrogated, and deported three Iranians who prematurely set off bombs made of clay-like C-4 explosives in Bangkok while allegedly plotting to assassinate Israeli diplomats.

Police arrested three male Iranian bomb-makers -- but missed their escaped female partner -- after the group set off a series of blasts which destroyed their rented Bangkok house, damaged a taxi, blew off the legs of one of the Iranians, and injured four Thai civilians.

Israel said at the time Iran was plotting to assassinate Israeli diplomats in Bangkok by making "magnet bombs" which could be attached to envoys' vehicles.

Iran denied involvement and blamed "Zionists" for staging the events to smear Tehran.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at