Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's statement was criticised by the Israeli Foreign Minister over the use of the word "lost" in relation to Emily Hand's release. Leah Farrell/

Irish ambassador 'surprised' at Israel's criticism over Taoiseach's Emily Hand statement

Ireland’s Ambassador to Israel Sonya McGuinness was summoned by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen after he condemned Leo Varadkar’s use of the word “lost” in relation to Emily.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 27th 2023, 1:17 PM

THE IRISH AMBASSADOR to Israel expressed surprise at the Israeli government’s criticism of the Taoiseach’s statement in relation to the release of Irish-Israeli hostage Emily Hand.

Sonya McGuinness was summoned by Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen after he condemned Leo Varadkar’s use of the word “lost” in relation to nine-year-old Emily.

Today, at a meeting in Jerusalem, McGuinness reiterated the “full statements” from the Taoiseach and Tánaiste and “expressed surprise on the part of the Irish Government that these expressions of evident relief at Emily’s release had been publicly criticised by the Israeli Government”.

In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs said the Ambassador restated Ireland’s position that all hostages should be released immediately and unconditionally.

It said she also expressed “the importance of fully respecting International Humanitarian Law and getting desperately-needed humanitarian supplies to civilians in Gaza” and that “the current truce should become a sustainable humanitarian ceasefire”.

“The international community must focus on a pathway to deliver a two-state solution which can allow the people of Israel and Palestine to live in peace and security as neighbours.”

Upon the release of Emily Hand on Saturday night, Varadkar said on X, formerly Twitter

“This 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.”

In response to Varadkar’s tweet, Cohen said: “Mr Prime Minister, It seems you have lost your moral compass and need a reality check.

“Emily Hand was not ‘lost’, she was kidnapped by a terror organisation worse than Isis that murdered her stepmother. Emily and more than 30 other Israeli children were taken hostage by Hamas, and you @LeoVaradkar are trying to legitimise and normalise terror. Shame on you!”

In a later tweet, he confirmed that he had summoned McGuinness “for a reprimand”. 

The Israeli President Isaac Herzog has also criticised the use of the word “lost”, calling Varadkar’s statement “unacceptable”.

The issue and controversy has since gained international traction.

The tweet sent by Varadkar was the first lines of a lengthy statement, published by the Taoiseach, in which he detailed how Emily was “snatched from her home home and held captive for almost seven weeks”.

Varadkar also noted in his original full statement the fact that Emily spent her ninth birthday as a hostage.

Varadkar responded to the controversy yesterday, saying: “It’s really good news that Emily has been released and she’s now at home with her family. The Irish government worked very hard with the Qatari, Egyptian, Israeli authorities, and the Red Cross to press for her release. And I’m really glad that she has been released and that’s the most important thing.

“I think the vast majority of people understand what I was saying, recalling the amazing joy and awe that occurs when a child comes home. I’ve always been consistent in my unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and hostage taking.”

He also called for all hostages to be released without any conditions “and I have always done so”.

Israel also summoned ambassadors from Spain and Belgium following remarks from the countries’ leaders which criticised Israel in relation to the conflict in Gaza.

‘A bit of an overreaction’

Members of Government and opposition parties have defended the Taoiseach in recent days.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland this morning, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris called the issue “a complete distraction” and said the country and the Government are “utterly elated” about the release of Emily Hand. 

“The Government worked really hard with diplomatic partners in relation to this and I think anyone who reads the Taoiseach’s statement and indeed anyone who knows the Taoiseach’s record – of course he calls out terrorism. Absolutely.”

Asked if Varadkar had put further strain on Ireland’s relation with Israel, Harris said he did not believe he had.

“Israel have decided to summon a number of ambassadors from a number of European countries in recent days. It’s their prerogative to do that. I think it is a bit of an overreaction being honest,” he said.

“I think the Taoiseach’s statement was extraordinarily clear and the main thing is Emily Hand is back with her family.”

Speaking on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics yesterday, Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty labelled the move as a “complete and utter deflection” from the debate around Israel’s siege of Gaza.

Doherty said: “Leo Varadkar statement is very clear. Emily Hand was taken hostage by Hamas. It has been condemned across the board, across the political divide and by the Taoiseach over and over again.

“This is absolute just deflection from from Israel, who are preparing I’m sure to begin their bombardment of Gaza again after the ceasefire.”

Asked on the same programme if the Taoiseach’s comments were “clumsy”, Minister of State Jack Chambers said Varadkar’s statement is “clear” in its reference to how Emily was taken.

Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore also said the comments about the Taoiseach are “disgraceful” and reiterated her party’s call to expel the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland.

Includes reporting by Muiris O’Cearbhaill