Emily turned nine on Friday. Like many little girls the world over, she loves to sing and to dance like Beyonce.
But unlike those other girls, Emily “spent her birthday in the Gaza tunnels”, one of the scores of hostages snatched by Hamas during its deadly October 7 attack on Israel, according to her father, Thomas Hand.
“She wouldn’t even know it was her birthday. She doesn’t know what day it is, and what date it is,” Irish-born Hand told AFP Sunday, making a heart-rending appeal to the UK to bring Emily home.
Based on initial information, the 63-year-old thought his daughter was dead.
“But that was mistaken identity,” he said on the sidelines of a protest for the release of the more than 200 people being held by the Palestinian Islamist group.
The DNA tests didn’t match, he added.
“Later on we had an eyewitness… (who) saw her being led away by the terrorists, into a van off to Gaza” after the attack on the Beeri kibbutz, he said.
For Hand, who moved to Israel at the age of 32, Beeri had been idyllic.
“Seriously it was paradise on earth… until it all came crushing down” on that “terrifying day”.
The Beeri kibbutz saw some of the worst atrocities when Gaza-based Hamas militants stormed across the militarised border, killing around 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.
The Hamas government says the death toll from Israel’s ensuing relentless aerial bombardment and ground operations in Gaza has reached 13,000 — among them 5,500 children.
“We have no idea what the future is, we’re refugees in our own country,” said Hand, who now lives in a hotel with the rest of his kibbutz members.
He doesn’t not know if they will return to Beeri, or if it will “ever be safe enough” to do so.
“Obviously, if the Hamas are still there, we’re never gonna come back there”.
At the podium on Sunday, Hand spoke of “families slaughtered” and “bodies everywhere”, with the Israeli soldiers who came to evacuate the residents telling everyone “don’t look to the sides, keep your eyes on my back”, to prevent them from seeing the carnage.
His face gaunt, Hand says has lost 12 kilograms since his daughter went missing, adding he was exhausted and “shattered”.
“There’s just a big hole in all our hearts that won’t be filled until she comes home again.”
The hostages’ relatives worry about their health.
“We don’t know… if they’re still alive,” Hand said.
His only focus is to “just keep marching forward until we get her back”.
He has met Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar as part of the campaign to pile pressure on governments.
On October 7, his daughter had spent the night at a friend’s house for a sleepover.
“She’s only ever done it twice,” said Hand, who normally would host Emily’s friends because he had plenty of space.
A widower, Hand’s wife died of cancer when Emily was two-and-a-half years old.
‘Living In A Nightmare’
Emily’s ninth birthday was marked by demonstrations, notably in London, while in New York, the little girl’s face was displayed in Times Square.
“She’s only nine years old, her place is at home with us, in her own room, in her own bed,” said Hand from the rostrum in front of hundreds of people who chanted “bring them home”.
“Help me bring her home!” he cried, in a speech punctuated by groans of pain.
“Honestly I don’t know how long I can do without her,” he said, adding “we’re all living in a nightmare”.
“It’s gonna take generations to truly fix us,” he said in tears.
With the lights from their phones held aloft, the crowd sang “Happy Birthday”.