Thomas Hand, the father of 9-year-old former Hamas hostage Emily Hand, said that any exchange deal to secure freedom for the remaining captives of terror groups in the Gaza Strip must be “reasonable” and expressed disapproval of the prospect of releasing all Palestinian security prisoners as part of an agreement.
Hand and daughter Emily spoke separately to the Kan public broadcaster and Channel 12 in a pair of English-language interviews broadcast on Saturday.
The Irish-Israeli Hand also talked about how his daughter has been recovering from her ordeal, noting that she still “has the odd panic attack,” including one on that very day, as a result of which she at first refused to sit down with the Channel 12 news crew and only joined in later.
Emily, who turned 9 while in captivity, still feels insecure, insisting that her father stay close to her even when they are at home. Her mother died of cancer several years ago.
She has also invented a series of codewords that she uses to represent things related to her abduction: olives instead of terrorists; box instead of Gaza; cheese instead of hostages; watermelon instead of blood. All are words for foods she doesn’t like to eat. Her father showed a color-coded “dictionary” written on a whiteboard at home.
Emily explained to Kan she uses the codes “because sometimes it is unpleasant for me to say those words.”
The interview came amid reports of an emerging hostage release deal on a wider scale than the one that saw Emily and over 100 other hostages set free at the end of November. In that deal, around three times as many Palestinian security prisoners held in Israel were set free for each hostage abducted from Israel.
Key elements of the reported new proposal are the number of Palestinian prisoners Hamas wants to see let out of Israeli jails in exchange for each hostage it holds, and how long an accompanying ceasefire would last. The terror group is said to be insisting on hundreds of prisoners for each hostage and a permanent halt to the war.
Emily Hand, 8 at the time, was among 253 people abducted by Hamas-led terrorists during their devastating October 7 attack on Israel, which also saw 1,200 people murdered, mostly civilians, amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists. The attack sparked the ongoing war in Gaza, which Israel launched with the aim of destroying the Palestinian terror group and removing it from power in Gaza, as well as releasing the hostages.
Asked if Israel should agree to release Palestinian security convicts in return for the hostages’ freedom, Hand told Kan it should only be “within reason.”
While Hamas may demand that all of the thousands of security prisoners held in Israeli jails be released, “they won’t get it,” he said.
“You know, talk reasonable numbers,” he added and urged that the war to destroy Hamas be waged until Israel’s goals are achieved.
The human cost of the October 7 massacre and the 225 soldiers killed so far in the fighting during the military response would be “pointless, a waste of time, effort, and lives. We have to finish the job,” Hand said.
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He admitted that even while Emily was being held hostage, he contemplated the value of the war against Hamas and the need to bring the hostages home.
“In my head at the time when she was captive, I knew that the IDF had to do everything in its power to destroy Hamas, primarily, and to do whatever they could to find and retrieve the hostages, and within that thought process, I realized that she could be bombed, could be shot by friendly fire — that was a price that in my head, I could say ‘okay,'” he recalled to Kan.
Speaking to Channel 12, Hand explained his internal dilemma as a parent supporting a deal at any cost to get the hostages back while at the same time understanding that from the point of view of the country’s leaders, it has to be “a reasonable deal.”
In both interviews, Hand expressed his ongoing concern for the hostages still in captivity and the need to see them brought to safety as soon as possible.
He urged families of other hostages to “stay positive,” saying Emily’s story is proof that “it can happen.”
Emily was at a sleepover at a friend’s house at the time of the Hamas assault on October 7. She was initially reported dead, but it was later announced that she was among those held hostage in Gaza. She was released on November 26.
“It is a miracle, simply a miracle — but it comes with a lot of guilty feelings about the rest of the hostages,” Hand told Kan.
He also provided an update on Emily, explaining that she is “pretty good, making progress, recovering. But the rest of us are broken now.”
Emily, he said, has “healed extremely fast, but for the rest of us, it is much slower,” and noted that his two young adult children, whom he had with his first wife, Narkis, lost their mother, who was shot dead by terrorists in Be’eri.
“They are still grieving for her and all this that is going on,” he said of the war.
He also said Emily had reverted to whispering, a habit she picked up in captivity. In the past Thomas has said that following her release, his daughter talked in whispers because the guards in Gaza would threaten her and her fellow captives with a knife if they made any noise.
“She lived through that, through that terror,” he said.
Though she now mostly talks normally, at night she reverts to whispering, he said. “Sometimes in the morning as well, she’ll whisper.”
He said Emily only discusses her experiences with him “now and then, snippets of information” and that he has been advised by psychiatrists to not press her for details and rather “to just let it come out.”
Thomas, who was visibly emotional at times during both interviews, could not hold back the tears as he recalled that his murdered ex-wife would have been 55 the day after the interview was held.
“Narkis was truly her second mother,” he said of Emily, whose biological mother is buried in Be’eri. Narkis helped take care of Emily after her mother died.
“And Emily loved Narkis like a mother,” he said, adding that it will be a “very, very tough day” when he takes Emily to visit Narkis’s grave, which they planned to do the next day on Narkis’s birthday.
Narkis has had a temporary interment, like other massacre victims, until they can be buried in Be’ri when it is safe to return.
Thomas said that he still wants to return to Be’eri, even though “the blood of our friends is on the roads, on the paths, on the grass, in the earth itself.”
“We have to go back. If we don’t go back, they’ve won,” he said.
Asked how she feels about returning to the location where the atrocities occurred, Emily said, “On the one hand it is really, really near to box,” using her codeword for Gaza, “and on the other hand all my friends are there. So I don’t know.”