By Eli Berlzon
DEAD SEA, Israel (Reuters) – Emily Hand had her ninth birthday as a hostage in Gaza, the day before she was reunited with her father, who initially believed she had been killed in the devastating attack by Hamas gunmen on southern Israel last month.
Returned in the second group of hostages released by the Islamist movement under a Qatari-brokered deal with Israel, she appeared in good health in a photograph released with fellow hostage Hila Rotem, whose mother remains in Gaza.
The daughter of an Irish immigrant to Israel, Emily’s mother died of cancer when she was 2 years old and her family described the violent mix of feelings reported by other hostage families.
“We can’t find the words to describe our emotions after 50 challenging and complicated days,” her family said in a statement. “We are overjoyed to embrace Emily again, but at the same time, we remember Raya Rotem and all the hostages who have yet to return.”
For residents of the Hands’ home kibbutz of Be’eri, one of the communities worst hit by last month’s attack by Hamas, the release of some of the hostages abducted on Oct. 7 brought a measure of relief tinged with sadness.
In the Dead Sea resort where most of the residents of the kibbutz have been evacuated to, there were cheers and applause as the community watched the hostages being brought to Israel.
“You don’t know, you can’t imagine they will come. You just can’t imagine it, what they will do, if they will talk about it,” said 10-year-old Talia, a friend of Emily Hand.
“We have a lot of questions, everyone wants to ask them, What happened there, what they did to them, if they ate and drank,” she said.
More than 100 people were killed during the attack on the kibbutz, located a few kilometres from the security fence with Gaza that was breached by Hamas gunmen in the early hours of Oct. 7, and the kibbutz has become one of the most potent symbols of the suffering caused by the attack.
Around 1,200 Israelis and foreigners were killed and some 240 were seized as hostages.
Since then, Israel has vowed both to destroy Hamas and bring the hostages back home. It has unleashed a relentless bombardment of the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 14,000 people, according to Palestinian health authorities.
Saturday’s release of 13 hostages came after some six weeks of fighting as part of a deal to release 50 hostages in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
Once the scheduled four-day truce to complete the exchange is over, Israeli commanders and Hamas have both said they expect fighting to resume. The future for the hostages who remain in Gaza is unclear.
“This is the saddest joy and the happiest sadness, but our family is home,” said Inbal Tzach, whose cousin Adi Shoham was visiting Be’eri, along with her children Nave, 8 and Yahel, 3 when the family was abducted.
However, with Adi’s husband, Tal, still in Gaza, she said there remained a long way to go. “This is an emotional evening for the families who received their loved ones tonight. We will continue the struggle until everyone comes home.”
(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Leslie Adler)