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A man walks past a display of Israeli hostages on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City. Alamy Stock Photo
THE MORNING LEAD

Irish diplomats working behind the scenes in hope of freeing kidnapped Emily Hand

Eight-year-old Irish-Israeli girl Emily Hand is believed to be a hostage of Hamas while 40 Irish citizens are trapped inside Gaza.

A SMALL TEAM of Irish officials spread across the Middle East and in Dublin are working quietly and secretly through diplomatic channels as they attempt to find a way to rescue Irish-Israeli hostage Emily Hand. 

The Department of Foreign Affairs has refused to comment on the situation but sources familiar with the case have said that the efforts to confirm that 8-year-old Emily is alive in Gaza are under way.

It is believed that no physical proof of life has been offered by Hamas but that news of Emily possibly being a hostage was from assessment and intelligence gathered by the Israeli military.

Emily’s father Thomas Hand, speaking to Virgin Media News this week, appealed to the kidnappers to release his daughter. 

“I beg you, on bended knees, to please release the children including Emily.”

He called on Hamas to “start with the children” and “maybe the women later, maybe the old people later”, before adding there is not much chance that the men being held hostage will be released. 

“If you have any humanity inside of your body and soul, please release the children at least,” he said.

“For God’s sake, have some humanity, some pity, some humane feelings of any kind, please.”

Ireland has a strong footprint in the Middle East and while relations with Israel are tense, the Irish team in the embassy in Tel Aviv are understood to be working behind the scenes keeping in touch with various groups. 

While some opposition TDs have called for the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in the Dáil this week that such a move could jeopardise the diplomatic efforts to find Emily Hand. 

The Taoiseach told the Dáil yesterday: “We want them [Irish citizens] to be able to leave but…there’s also a young Irish girl who may well be being held in Gaza as a hostage of Hamas as well.

“So there’s not just one side about this. Our priority, no matter who’s holding is to get them out and get to safety. And that means that we need to be able to engage with the Israeli government and the Israeli ambassador.”

The diplomatic efforts are not limited to Israel however and diplomats are understood to have talked to other nations such as Iran and the Gulf states to try and broker some deal directly with Hamas. 

According to the Israeli Government, 241 hostages are being held by Hamas inside Gaza – many with dual citizenship status.

Most were taken by armed militants during the 7 October assault in which 1,400 Israelis were killed. In the aftermath of the shock attack, a bombing and ground offensive was launched by Israeli forces on Gaza which has killed 10,000 people, according to Hamas health ministry officials.

Reports last week from Iranian media suggested that there were contacts made by Ireland to Iran in the hopes of getting a message to Hamas. 

reim-israel-10-october-2023-israel-reim-an-israeli-solider-stands-at-the-grounds-of-the-supernova-electronic-music-festival-after-saturdays-deadly-attack-by-islamist-hamas-militants-where-260 An Israeli soldier stands at the site of the Supernova electronic music festival where 260 people died and 100 people were taken hostage. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Negotiations and rescues

There have been previous successful hostage rescues of Irish citizens. Rory Carroll, an Irish journalist was kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq in 2005.

There had been a suggestion by the then-Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern that considerations were being made at the time to send a specialist Army Ranger Wing team but this became redundant when a deal was struck.

In July 2009, Sharon Commins, an aid worker with Goal, was abducted along with Ugandan colleague Hilda Kawuki by an armed group in Sudan. She was eventually freed after negotiations. 

It is understood in previous incidents a small consular team sought assistance from specialist garda negotiators, military intelligence and advisors from the Army Ranger Wing. It is understood that garda negotiators have traveled to locations where Irish people were being held. 

Sources familiar with such operations believe that there will not be an easy resolution to the feared kidnapping of Emily Hand. 

“A tactical recovery operation won’t be an option for Ireland in this one,” a source said. 

Those sources believe that rescue operations in States in locations such as the Sahel in Africa or in other more dysfunctional locations in the Middle East may be easier than launching military rescue operations in Gaza. 

Any involvement of Irish officials in a rescue operation is dependent on Israeli agreement but there is also no ready intelligence available to Irish and other countries of where exactly the hostages are located.

One source believes the most likely scenario is that some of the hostages have been taken out of Gaza.

“If Hamas put these hostages in a location where they may be inadvertently killed by Israeli bombing then they lose the value of having them – it likely they have planned for that eventuality,” the source said.  

International efforts

Sources have said that the US, Britain, French and Germans have stationed Special Forces soldiers in Cyprus in recent weeks with a view to moving them into Israel and Gaza should an opportunity arise to launch a rescue operation. 

US Special Forces soldiers were spotted in Israel during the visit of President Joe Biden when images were accidentally posted on the White House social media channels. 

Sources said hostage rescue operations normally have a twenty minute window so ideally the rescue team needs to be close to the target location.

It is likely that those commandos will be embedded within Israeli military groups and be on standby to launch a mission. It is believed the United State’s elite Delta Force also known as Combat Action Group (CAG) is in Israel.

The deployment had been confirmed in a New York Times report last week. 

Sources believe they will be working closely with Israeli Special Forces unit Sayeret Matkal which specialises in hostage rescue. 

people-search-through-buildings-destroyed-during-israeli-air-raids-on-al-shati-refugee-camp-in-gaza-city-people-search-through-buildings-destroyed-during-israeli-air-raids-on-al-shati-refugee-camp-i People search through buildings, destroyed during Israeli air raids on Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Diplomacy

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said this week that diplomatic relations with Israel were now critical. 

“We have a situation now where we have about 40 Irish citizens in Gaza, and we want them to be able to leave if they want to leave. And we have an Irish citizen [Emily Hand] who may be held hostage in Gaza by Hamas, and we want to get her out.

“We also, at some point, want to be able to talk about peace and reconciliation and an end to this conflict.

And when you expel an ambassador you disempower yourself. You cut off links.

“You can’t talk anymore. You have to rebuild those links. I can understand it as an emotional reaction, but it’s not a common sense approach in my view, and it’s not the way things get done in international affairs.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs has said there are an estimated 8,000 foreign and dual nationals and immediate dependants in Gaza who are seeking to leave. 

The Department said the departures are being managed country-by-country on a phased basis and it will “take some time for this process to be completed”. 

“As of this morning, the Department understands that less than 20% of EU nationals in Gaza have been asked to leave so far. A further group, including EU nationals, is expected to leave today,” the spokesperson said. 

“The names of all Irish citizens in Gaza who have asked to be included on the list of those due to leave have been submitted to the relevant authorities. Our embassies in Cairo and Tel Aviv are in regular communication with the authorities in Egypt and Israel in this regard,” they said. 

“We are also in regular communication with Irish citizens on the ground and are updating them directly as we have confirmed information.”