A young Irish-Israeli girl has been released after being held captive by Hamas.
Emily Hand, nine, is understood to be have been held hostage by militants in Gaza after being captured in the Hamas attack on Kibbutz Be’eri on October 7.
Her father Thomas, originally from Dun Laoghaire in Dublin, has spoken about how he is looking forward to giving her a huge hug.
He told the Daily Mirror that Emily would also be greeted by her beloved dog Johnsie and cuddly toys, and they are planning to give the young girl – who spent her ninth birthday in captivity – “the best birthday party she never had”.
Emily’s family in Ireland held a birthday party for her at St Stephen’s Green in the Irish capital as they campaigned for her release.
Mr Hand met Irish president Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tanaiste Micheal Martin to press politicians to do all they can to press for his daughter’s release.
“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, broken but in one piece,” he said.
“She turned nine on November 17, more than a month after she was taken from me.
“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 – this one is floating in my hotel room, but it’s lost a lot of air, it’s going flat. We’ll get hundreds and hundreds now and make a great party.
“She’ll have the best Christmas and Hanukkah she’s ever had. I’m a lapsed Catholic and her mum and almost all her friends are Jewish, so we celebrate both.
“I may take her out of Israel altogether so she can recover in a country that’s fully at peace. Like England.”
Mr Higgins welcomed Emily’s release, saying it brought an end to “a horrific time for all of her family”.
In a statement he said: “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.
“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.”
Mr Varadkar described “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 our country breathes a massive sigh of relief. Our prayers have been answered,” he said.
“A little girl was snatched from her home and held captive for almost seven weeks. She spent her ninth birthday as a hostage. We hope she will soon heal and recover from the traumatic experience in the loving embrace of her family.”
He paid tribute to her family’s tireless campaigning for Emily’s release.
“They travelled across Europe to keep her plight in the public eye. When I met Tom and Natali in Dublin, their pain was etched on their faces, but so was their courage and determination to ensure that Emily would be freed. I shared their grief and was inspired by their example,” 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.”
Mr Varadkar said while Emily is now returning to her family, it cannot be forgotten 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,” he said.
Mr Martin said he is delighted that Emily, “a bright and beautiful young girl”, has been released and will be reunited with her family.
“After weeks of trauma, this is a precious and deeply moving moment for the Hand family,” he said.
“The people of Ireland have been touched by Emily’s story, her innocence and the quiet dignity and determination of her father Tom.”
He went on: “I had the opportunity to meet Tom before travelling 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 to amplify as we engaged internationally, through political, diplomatic and security channels, in a bid to secure Emily’s safe return.
“I want to acknowledge the role played by the US, Qatar, Egypt and others that have been involved in securing the release of the hostages.
“I am conscious today that many more hostages remain in the hands of Hamas. I reiterate my call that all hostages in Gaza should be released immediately and unconditionally.”
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald welcomed confirmation that Emily Hand is returning to her family.
“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.
“I reiterate my call that all hostages be released urgently and for an immediate full ceasefire to be in place. Ireland must continue to be a voice for peaceful dialogue on the international stage.”
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