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DUBLIN — When Emily Hand, an Irish-Israeli girl kidnapped by Hamas, was released from captivity Saturday night, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar attempted a poetic touch as he celebrated her freedom. But his imprecise use of biblical language triggered a furious response from Israel.
The episode illustrates the strained state of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Israel — and the pitfalls of attempting nuance or allusion on social media.
Shortly after Emily, who turned nine while still a hostage in Gaza, was reunited with her Irish-born father, Tom Hand, Varadkar tweeted a brief statement that borrowed an image and phrasing from the Bible’s Parable of the Prodigal Son, who “was dead, and is alive … was lost, and is found.”
“This is a day of enormous joy and relief for Emily Hand and her family. An innocent child who was lost has now been found and returned, and we breathe a massive sigh of relief. Our prayers have been answered,” Varadkar said — to an immediate barrage of invective from Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy.
“This is how you describe a little girl who went missing during a stroll in a forest, then gets discovered by a friendly hiker. Not a girl brutally abducted by death squads that brutally massacred her neighbors. But this explains the extent of Ireland’s contribution: prayers,” Levy wrote in a string of tweets ridiculing Ireland’s understanding of the situation.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen soon added his voice of condemnation, tagging Varadkar on his post: “It seems you have lost your moral compass and … are trying to legitimize and normalize terror. Shame on you!”
On Sunday, Cohen said he would summon Ireland’s ambassador to Israel, Sonya McGuinness, for a formal reprimand at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In Dublin, where government and security chiefs are focused this weekend on coping with a sudden surge in anti-immigrant disorder, officials said they expected McGuinness to receive the face-to-face message on Monday, most likely from lower-ranking Israeli officials.
Two Irish officials told POLITICO that Israeli anger was understandable given the horror of the mass killings and abductions by Hamas on October 7— but they urged people to read Varadkar’s full statement.
But when POLITICO pointed out that the full statement was visible only in third-party screen-grabs, not published properly online, one official replied: “Well, that’s somebody’s fuck-up, not mine thankfully.”
Some local commentators viewed Israel’s response as over-the-top and a matter of deliberately misreading an attempt at “poetic language.” They noted that the comment was tailored to reflect the Hand family’s initial belief that Emily had been slain on October 7, a point teased out in Varadkar’s longer statement.
“Varadkar sometimes chooses words poorly, but the hype about his clearly well-intended biblical reference is ridiculous,” said Bobby McDonagh, Ireland’s former ambassador to the EU and the U.K.
Others suggested that Varadkar should have known better than to use language that could be too easily misconstrued and was the author of his own misfortune.
As has so often been the case in Ireland’s coalition government, Varadkar’s more soft-spoken colleague, Foreign Minister Micheál Martin — recently returned from a visit to Egypt, Israel and the West Bank focused on securing exits for dozens of Irish citizens stuck in Gaza — offered a parallel lesson in how to craft a statement that makes no diplomatic waves.