The Israeli government has accused Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, of legitimising terror and losing his moral compass by saying a freed Irish-Israeli hostage had been “lost” as opposed to kidnapped.
Eli Cohen, Israel’s foreign minister, on Sunday summoned the Irish ambassador to the foreign ministry in Jerusalem for a formal reprimand over Varadkar’s response to the release of nine-year-old Emily Hand, who was reunited with her family after 50 days as a hostage in Gaza.
“This is a day of enormous joy and relief for Emily Hand and her family,” said the statement from Varadkar’s office. “An innocent child who was lost has now been found and returned, and our country breathes a massive sigh of relief,” it began. “Our prayers have been answered.”
The 360-word statement went on to refer to Emily as a “hostage” who had been “snatched” and “held captive”, inflicting “cruel torture” on her family. “We cannot forget that many more hostages remain in captivity in Gaza,” it said.
The statement caused a storm in Israel, with critics focusing on the first sentence. In a blistering response Cohen faulted Varadkar for not using the word “kidnap” and not naming Hamas, which killed more than 1,200 people and kidnapped more than 200 in southern Israel on 7 October.
“Mr Prime Minister, it seems you have lost your moral compass and need a reality check,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “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!”
The foreign minister said he summoned the Irish ambassador to Israel, Sonya McGuinness, for a reprimand.
Eylon Levy, an Israeli government spokesperson, said Varadkar’s wording was apt for a girl discovered after going missing during a forest stroll, but “not a girl brutally abducted by death squads that brutally massacred her neighbours”.
The Israeli embassy in Dublin issued a veiled rebuke. “Words matter, especially in war when lives are at stake, and when there is an increase of extreme discourse.”
The Israeli response caught Dublin by surprise. Israel has previously accused Ireland of pro-Palestinian bias but Irish officials had expected Emily’s release to be a moment of mutual satisfaction.
Varadkar and Ireland’s foreign minister, Micheál Martin, had met Emily’s family and Martin flagged her case on a visit to Egypt and Israel.
Martin said he was “genuinely surprised” at the row. Varadkar said: “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.”
The enterprise minister, Simon Coveney, urged people to read Varadkar’s original statement in full. “Being lost and found is a biblical term effectively that he was using in a tweet,” he told RTÉ. Some Israeli commentators on social media said the biblical reference was additional reason for offence because it was from the New Testament.
The spat came after the Israeli foreign ministry summoned the ambassadors of Spain and Belgium for a “harsh rebuke” over comments by the two countries’ leaders, accusing them of supporting “terrorism”.
All three countries, along with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, have been calling for “urgent” humanitarian aid to Gaza and the end of killing of innocent civilians.
Visiting the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt on Friday with the Belgian prime minister, Alexander De Croo, Spain’s Pedro Sánchez said the “indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians” in the Palestinian territory was “completely unacceptable”.
Both leaders called for a permanent ceasefire in the war-battered territory, with the Belgian premier also denouncing the destruction in the Gaza Strip as “unacceptable”.
Spain’s prime minister rejected the Israel criticism. “Condemning the vile terrorist attacks of a terrorist group like Hamas, and at the same condemning the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians in Gaza, is not a question of political parties nor of ideology, it is a question of being humane,” Sánchez told a gathering of his Socialist party in Madrid, earning applause from the audience.
The Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, has in turn called in the Israeli ambassador to lodge a formal protest against the Israeli government’s allegations.