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First thought to be dead, a 9-year-old Israeli girl is released by Hamas

Emily Hand, 9, shown with her father Tom Hand, was one of the Israeli hostage released Saturday by Hamas. Israeli authorities first thought she was killed in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, but the Israeli military later determined she was alive. She was reunited with her father in the early hours of Sunday.
Israeli military via AP
Emily Hand, 9, shown with her father Tom Hand, was one of the Israeli hostage released Saturday by Hamas. Israeli authorities first thought she was killed in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, but the Israeli military later determined she was alive. She was reunited with her father in the early hours of Sunday.

The night before the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre, 8-year-old Emily Hand had a sleepover with a friend in southern Israel.

The next morning, Hamas rampaged through Kibbutz Be'eri, one of the places hit hardest in the attack, including the home where Emily was staying.

As Israeli authorities tried to identify the dead in the days that followed, they told Emily's father, Tom Hand, that his daughter was among those killed.

When the Israeli officials gave him the news, "I went, 'Yes!' Hand said in a tearful interview with CNN. "That was the best possibility that 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."

For Hand, it was a double blow. His wife, Emily's stepmother, was killed in the Hamas attack. Emily's biological mother, Hand's previous partner, died of cancer when she was 2 years old.

But at the end of October, Israeli authorities came back to Hand with stunning news — they had evidence Emily was alive and was among the roughly 240 hostages Hamas was holding in Gaza.

"I had to shift my whole brain and digest this new information. And when they told me, I just went, 'No, no, no no,'" Hand told The Associated Press.

He went from despair to guarded hope, waiting day after agonizing day. On Nov. 17, while still a hostage, presumably in the Hamas tunnels under Gaza, Emily turned 9 years old.

Then, late Saturday night, Hamas released 13 Israelis, eight of them children, including Emily.

Video showed her running into the arms of her father as they were reunited after seven weeks.

But there are cruel twists in these hostage releases — while the hostages are key figures in Israel-Hamas war, they've been kept in the dark, literally and figuratively.

Deep under Gaza, they have little knowledge about the enormity of the Hamas attack, which killed around 1,200 people in Israel, or the wider war.

Since Emily was at her friend's home when she was seized, she probably had no way of knowing that her stepmother was killed — or that her father was still alive.

But as the ordeal ends for those who have been released, they are now receiving the new shock that family members and friends were killed.

In another development, Emily's case sparked a controversy Sunday. She and her father are duel Israeli-Irish citizens, which prompted Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to tweet about her release, saying, "an innocent child who was lost has now been found and returned."

Many in Israel were outraged, stressing Emily was not "lost," but was abducted by Hamas and held hostage.

Israel's Foreign Minister Eli Cohen responded to the Irish prime minister with a tweet of his own:

"Mr. Prime Minister, Emily Hand is not lost. Maybe you have lost your moral compass and your connection to reality. Emily Hand was kidnapped by a terrorist organization worse than ISIS after her stepmother was murdered. Emily and over 30 other Israeli children were kidnapped by Hamas, and you are trying to legitimize it. Shame on you!"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.