It has been 11 days since Thomas Hand’s daughter, Emily (8), was shot dead by Hamas militants, who went door-to-door in the kibbutz Be’eri, a few kilometres from the Gaza border, shooting anyone they could find.
Together with the other survivors from the Be’eri farming community, Irish-born Hand was evacuated to a hotel on the Dead Sea and is still trying to process the events of that terrible day.
“There’s parents here without children. There’s children here without parents. Some are now hostages in Gaza. Everyone who survived is traumatised,” he told The Irish Times in an interview.
“We still haven’t buried Emily. There’s 112 bodies to bury in Be’eri. We can’t bury them one by one. Maybe we will bury them side by side and build a memorial and have a big service. We can’t go back there while there is still Hamas in Gaza.”
Hand entered his bombproof, secure room at 6.30am on Saturday when sirens sounded in response to a massive rocket barrage from Gaza. Emily was at a sleepover at a friend’s house on the kibbutz. But then he heard shots.
“I could hear the gunfire getting closer. I rang my ex-wife on the kibbutz to make sure she was in a safe room and had locked the door and I told her to call the family where Emily was sleeping,” he said.
After eventually emerging from his safe room, he was escorted by a senior member of the community to a room where a doctor was waiting, together with a psychiatrist and a social worker, and informed that Emily had been killed. Hand’s reaction was remarkable.
“I literally punched the air and shouted ‘yes’ like I’d just scored a goal. Can you imagine the reaction of the panel: did he just say that?”
Hand explained why he was so happy to hear such tragic news.
“I knew the alternative for my daughter. I knew she’d either be found dead or kidnapped and taken to Gaza. And the thought of a little eight-year-old child in the hands of those animals, those cowardly barbarians, being pushed around, yelled at in Arabic which she doesn’t understand. She’d be terrorised out of her life,” he said.
“My God, I can’t imagine what would have been going through her head, locked up in a small dark room with hardly any water or food. Can you imagine the sheer horror for an eight-year-old child? Yes, they’d be there for years. Who knows? I couldn’t have lived with that. Locked up like in the train wagons they used to deport the Jews to the concentration camps.”
Hand’s emotional interview with CNN outlining the death of his daughter in the wake of the attack made headlines around the world.
So far, the Israeli military has informed 199 families that their loved ones were kidnapped and taken to Gaza. Hamas claims the figure is higher and is demanding the release of 6,000 security prisoners in exchange for their release.
Hand, who is not Jewish, was born in Dún Laoghaire.
“My Mam and Dad were from the area. My dad and his brother had a family-owned pub called Hands. Next door to Hands, believe it or not, was a fruit and vegetable store called Foot. Hands and Foot, side by side, It was crazy.”
But times were hard and the family left Dublin for England when he was eight or nine, originally living in a caravan site in Margate. At the age of 32, after a variety of jobs in England, Hand signed up as a kibbutz volunteer and was randomly assigned to kibbutz Be’eri by the kibbutz volunteer agency in London.
They caught the whole of Israel with their pants down. It’s shameful, to be honest. There was one team that kidnapped people and handed them over to another team on motorbikes who drove them back to Gaza
“I thought, just my luck. A kibbutz next to Gaza. There’s plenty of kibbutzim in the centre of the country but I have to get one next to Gaza. But, until last Saturday, it was paradise. I couldn’t have asked for a better place or people,” he said, holding back tears.
During his three-month stay he fell in love with a member of the kibbutz, Narkis. He stayed and they had two children, Aiden (29) and Natalie (26).
They eventually divorced and Hand married Emily’s mother, Liat, who died of breast cancer five years ago.
He worked at a number of jobs on the kibbutz, including a tractor driver in the fields and laying irrigation systems. Before Saturday’s attack he worked in Be’eri’s printing press.
“Hamas were there to kill and mutilate and kidnap. They were very, very well organised,” Hand said.
“They caught the whole of Israel with their pants down. It’s shameful, to be honest. There was one team that kidnapped people and handed them over to another team on motorbikes who drove them back to Gaza.”
Coincidently, Hand was in the process of applying for an Irish passport for Emily when the events of Saturday turned everyone’s world upside down. He had never taken her to visit his homeland.
He said Emily had a great life on the kibbutz.
“She was a little angel and she actually looked like an angel. She was very, very sociable and she loved music. She would sing in the house all day long and she loved dancing. She would watch videos of Beyoncé; she was her favourite and would pick up the moves really quickly.
“She was always chosen for the dance routines on the stage for the Kibbutz for the holidays – always front and centre, so if the other kids forgot the steps they could just look at Emily. She was exceptional.”
Asked whether he had a message for people in Ireland, considered by Israel to be one of the most pro-Palestinian countries in the European Union, he said he understood why Irish people supported Palestinians.
“When I first came here I was also pro-Palestinian. We have tried living in peace with them for a very long time but they don’t want it. They want to push us into the sea. It’s written in the Hamas charter. But that’s what we’re gonna do to you, to Hamas. So none of you start complaining when we retaliate now because it’s us or them now and it’s not going to be us,” he said.
As for the Hamas attack, the deadliest in Israel’s history, who does he blame?
“Obviously Hamas. But on our side the government, and particularly [Israeli prime minister] Bibi Netanyahu. He’s shown time and time again how weak we are,” he said.
“Hamas fired rockets at us for years and we didn’t respond. They built up their armaments, built up their rockets. Nowhere is safe in Israel.”