Emily Hand's father promises 'the biggest party' ahead of her release from Gaza

Irish-Israeli, 9, was initially feared dead after Hamas attack on Kibbutz Be'eri

Emily Hand is reunited with her father, Thomas, after being held hostage in Gaza. Photo: Israeli army via AP
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The father of Emily Hand, an Irish-Israeli girl released from Hamas captivity, has vowed to throw the "biggest party ever" after she had spent her ninth birthday as a hostage in Gaza.

Thomas Hand, who spent seven weeks campaigning for his daughter's release, said the young girl was "in one piece" ahead of her release on Saturday night.

The Israeli military filmed their emotional reunion in footage posted to social media, with photos of the pair embracing under an Israeli flag.

"We have been waiting for far too long for this moment. Every day has been a long and painful living nightmare … my Emily is coming home at last," he told the Daily Mirror.

"I am sure she had no idea it was her birthday – she would have lost track of time and dates there. I still have the party balloons ... we’ll get hundreds and hundreds now and make a great party," he said from southern Israel, where most of the survivors from Kibbutz Be'eri are being housed.

"She’ll have the best Christmas and Hanukkah she’s ever had."

The family later released a statement, describing her 50 days in captivity as "challenging and complicated".

"We can't find words to describe our emotions," it added.

Emily turned nine on November 17, while her family gathered in Ireland with balloons and photos of the young girl in St Stephen's Green, Dublin.

"She won’t know it’s her birthday. There will be no birthday cake. No party, no friends. She will just be petrified in a tunnel under Gaza. That is her birthday," her father said at the time.

Emily's mother Liat died of cancer when Emily was two. The girl was then brought up by her father and stepmother in Be'eri, where Mr Hand moved three decades ago to volunteer.

She was taken by Hamas militants while at a sleepover and was initially believed to have been among the 120 killed in the attack, in which dozens of hostages were also taken from the kibbutz.

At the time, Mr Hand spoke of his relief that his daughter was presumed dead, believing it a better fate than being taken into Gaza.

"Because that is the best news of the possibilities that I knew. That was the best possibility I was hoping for. She was either dead or in Gaza. And if you know anything about what they do to people in Gaza, that is worse than death," he told CNN.

Mr Hand says he is now considering leaving Israel to protect his daughter.

“I may take her out of Israel altogether so she can recover in a country that’s fully at peace, like England.”

Diplomatic dispute

While Emily's release has brought joy for many, it has also prompted a diplomatic spat following comments made by Ireland's prime minister.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described Saturday as a "day of joy" on social media platform X, but was quickly rebuked for describing Emily as "lost and then found".

"It seems you have lost your moral compass and need a reality check," Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen wrote in a response to Mr Varadkar's tweet.

"Emily Hand was not 'lost', she was kidnapped by a terror organisation worse than ISIS that murdered her stepmother," he added.

Israel responded by summoning the Irish ambassador for a "reprimand".

Meanwhile, Irish President Michael Higgins welcomed Emily's release.

"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.

Updated: November 26, 2023, 4:18 PM