Irish-Israeli girl Emily Hand has been released after being held as a hostage for 50 days by militant group Hamas.
The nine-year-old, who was seized from her home in kibbutz Be’eri on October 7th by Palestinian gunmen, was included in the second group of hostages to be freed as part of a deal under which 50 Israeli children, mothers and elderly women are being released in four groups over a four-day period, during which a ceasefire is being observed in Gaza by both sides.
Emily, along with eight other Israeli children and five women, was handed over to Red Cross representatives in Khan Yunis and driven to the Rafah crossing. After crossing the border to Egypt, the hostages were positively identified by Israeli security officials and flown by helicopter to a hospital in Israel.
At the hospital, Emily was reunited with her Irish father, Thomas Hand, and her two half siblings with a photograph of the father and daughter reunion later published on social media.
“We can’t find the words to describe our emotions after 50 challenging and complicated days,” her family said in a statement. “We are overjoyed to embrace Emily again, but at the same time, we remember Raya Rotem and all the hostages who have yet to return.”
Emily, who spent her ninth birthday in captivity earlier this month, was kidnapped while at a sleepover at a friend’s house and was initially feared dead. Her father, originally from Dún Laoghaire in Dublin, had urged the Irish Government to do all it could to secure her release. Securing Emily’s freedom was “my reason for living and getting up in the morning every day”, he told a press conference earlier this month.
Her friend Hila Rotem (13), was also released on Saturday night but her mother, Raya Rotem is still being held captive.
In the first 24 hours after her release, after a medical examination, professionals and family members will inform Emily about her friends on Be’eri who were either killed or kidnapped.
About 100 people on Be’eri were killed and two dozen taken hostage, when scores of heavily armed Hamas gunmen went from house to house, shooting entire families and burning homes. Survivors and first response medical teams testified to atrocities on the kibbutz committed by the militants.
Four foreign nationals, also abducted from Israel on October 7th, were also released on Saturday, in a gesture unconnected to the Israel-Hamas deal. Israel was also due to release 39 Palestinian prisoners, most of them women and children from the West Bank, on Saturday.
Saturday night’s release was held up for almost seven hours after Hamas accused Israel of violating the terms of ceasefire agreement by prevent aid lorries reaching the northern Gaza Strip and flying drones over the southern end of the coastal enclave.
Israel denied the allegations. Eventually, following the intervention of US president Joe Biden and pressure from Qatar and Egypt, the key mediators of the deal, Hamas agreed to free the hostages.
Emily was initially believed to have been killed in the Hamas assault. However, her family was informed three weeks later that it was highly likely she had actually been abducted and was being held along with her friend from Be’eri where she was staying at a sleepover on the night of the attack, and the friend’s mother.
Emily will not be able to return home. Some members of the kibbutz have returned to operate Be’eri’s printing press factory and the communal dining room has also reopened, but the area remains a closed military zone and most residents, including Thomas Hand, are staying at a Dead Sea hotel.
Earlier this week, the residents of Be’eri decided to relocate to Kibbutz Hatzerim, close to Beersheva in the south of Israel, in a few months’ time. They will stay there for several years until the destroyed buildings in Be’eri are rebuilt. The return to Be’eri is also contingent on a new security arrangement on the border, removing the threat of rocket fire and militant incursions from Gaza.
President Micheal D Higgins said the release of Emily brings to an end what has been “a horrific time” for all of her family.
“It is my great hope that Emily can now, despite all that she has endured, enjoy a happy and fulfilling life after what has been an unimaginable situation for such a young child,” he said. “The release of Emily to her family has been a priority of the Government in their diplomatic efforts in recent weeks and I think it is important that this work is recognised.”
The President also welcomed the release of Shoshan Haran, and of Adi, Naveh and Yahel Shoham, whose relatives he met with the Hand family.
“While we particularly recognise this important moment as an Irish-Israeli child is released, we must also retain a focus on what is now needed - a durable ceasefire, the release of all remaining hostages, and a commitment from all sides to engaging in the task of building what can be an enduring peace.”
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said he was delighted Emily - “a bright and beautiful young girl” - had been released.
“After weeks of trauma, this is a precious and deeply moving moment for the Hand family. The people of Ireland have been touched by Emily’s story, her innocence and the quiet dignity and determination of her father, Tom,” he said.
“I had the opportunity to meet Tom before traveling to the region, and I was struck by the strength and resilience with which he advocated for his daughter’s release. This is a message that I and my colleagues in government sought amplify as we engaged internationally, through political, diplomatic and security channels, in a bid to secure Emily’s safe return.”
Mr Martin paid tribute to the US, Qatar, Egypt and others who worked towards the release of the hostages.
“I am conscious today that many more hostages remain in the hands of Hamas,” he said. “I reiterate my all that all hostages should be released immediately and unconditionally.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it is a day of enormous joy and relief for Emily Hand and her family. “An innocent child who was lost has now been found and returned, and we breathe a massive sigh of relief. Our prayers have been answered,” he said.
“Irish people everywhere share in the relief of Emily’s family. Our thoughts and prayers are with all the hostages in Gaza, but we followed particularly closely the fate of Emily, a dual Irish-Israeli citizen. Since our country first heard that she may still be alive, we have hoped beyond hope that her name would be on one of the lists of hostages to be released.,” said Mr Varadkar.
“Emily now returns to her family, but we cannot forget that many more hostages remain in captivity in Gaza. Their fate is unknown, but we hope that like Emily, they will also be allowed to return to their homes and their families. We think of all the families suffering in this troubled region, and we redouble our efforts to work for a permanent ceasefire, and for a just and lasting peace.”
Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald also welcomed Emily’s release. “The trauma and heartbreak that little Emily and her family have been subjected to over the last number of weeks is unimaginable,” she said. “I commend the mediators’ efforts, including the government of Qatar and all other neighbouring states, for the constructive role that they have played in securing the release of Emily and the other hostages, as well as Palestinian women and children who were imprisoned under administrative detention, who are finally reuniting with their loved ones today.”
She also called for the release of all remaining hostages.
In a joint statement, the Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum and Kibbutz Be’eri said that Emily, whose story “captivated the world, is coming home”.
“Today is a bittersweet day, one of great joy but also marked with sadness,” said Amir Solvi, chair of Kibbutz Be’eri. “We aspire towards peaceful skies over Gaza free of the sound of gunfire. We have paid too much.”
An estimated 100,000 people rallied in Tel Aviv on Saturday night to support hostages’ families, marking 50 days since the October 7th attack on Israel.
Israeli leaders have vowed to continue the military offensive in Gaza when the current ceasefire expires.
“Israel’s ability to bring back the first group of hostages stems from the military pressure applied,” defence minister Yoav Gallant told troops in Gaza.
“When pressure is exerted – they want a ceasefire; when you increase the pressure – they seek another ceasefire; when you escalate further – they are willing to come up with a proposal, and when you increase it even more – they’re ready to offer something acceptable. That’s the whole approach.”
The pause in fighting marks the first major lull since the latest major round of Palestinian-Israeli violence began last month.
Israel has responded with an ongoing bombardment of the Gaza Strip, a densely packed enclave with about 2.3 million inhabitants. It launched a ground offensive on the northern part in late October.
Almost 15,000 people have died in Gaza since the war began, according to its Hamas-run health ministry.