DUBLIN — Like other European countries, Ireland is watching in horror as thousands of people are killed in Gaza, knowing that among them are likely to be some of its own citizens.
One particularly shocking case stands out: that of Emily Hand, an eight-year-old girl who was thought to have been killed by Hamas at a kibbutz during the massacre on 7 October.
Her father was initially informed of her likely death, but DNA tests have indicated her body was not among the remains recovered from the kibbutz.
She is now thought to be alive and held hostage in Gaza, providing the Irish government with an imperative to secure her release — if at all possible — requiring intense diplomatic work as fighting rages in Gaza.
But at home in Ireland, Hand’s case is part of a complicated political reality. While many European governments have hesitated to condemn Israel’s bombardment of Gaza – if they have criticized it at all – many Irish leaders have taken a noticeably tougher tone.
The Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), Leo Varadkar, has repeatedly condemned the Hamas massacre of 1,400 people in Israel, but has also said that Israel’s response in Gaza resembles “something more approaching revenge”.
At an international aid conference for Gaza hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Thursday, Varadkar said that failure to observe humanitarian law “can’t be inconsequential”.
Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins, meanwhile, has accused Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of nothing less than undermining international human rights norms.
“To announce in advance that you will break international law and to do so on an innocent population, it reduces all the code that was there from Second World War on protection of civilians and it reduces it to tatters,” Higgins said in mid-October as the air campaign in Gaza began to claim increasingly more civilian lives.
His remarks were criticised by the Israeli ambassador in Dublin, Dana Erlich, who accused him of being misinformed and suggested that Israel’s overall impression of Ireland was one of unconscious anti-Israeli bias.
Another Israeli diplomat in Dublin posted their criticism on X: “Ireland wondering who funded those tunnels of terror? A short investigation direction – 1. Find a mirror 2. Direct it to yourself 3. Voilà.” The post has since been clarified and disowned.
Higgins has also been critical of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whom he said was “reckless” in her initial pro-Israeli response to the outbreak of war.
He continues to call for a humanitarian ceasefire, and for international independent verification of the death toll in Gaza – a number currently reported only by the Hamas-run health ministry.
So while many Western European governments remain in near-lockstep, why are Ireland’s leaders noticeably more ambivalent in their public statements about Israel’s actions?
For one thing, the two countries have not had the warmest relationship over the last two decades. In 2010, it was revealed that agents of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, had used counterfeited passports to travel undercover to Dubai, where they assassinated a Hamas leader.
Among their forged travel documents were Irish passports, including some using stolen genuine passport numbers.
The episode put a chill on Irish-Israeli relations, one that marks the relationship to this day. At the time, Irish ministers warned that Mossad’s actions may have put Irish travelers at risk. But six years after the incident, the then-Israeli ambassador to Ireland declined to guarantee that the same thing would not happen again.
On both sides of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, many Irish nationalists have identified with the Palestinian cause for decades, seeing in it a parallel with their own resistance to military violence from the British state.
This resonance is still felt today. Sinn Fein, the largest and oldest party that advocates for Irish reunification, is widely expected to lead the next government in Dublin, and its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has made her views on Israel abundantly clear.
In 2021, during a major outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence, she told parliament that Israel needed to be condemned as a “racist, apartheid regime”, and grounded her call for Palestinian statehood in the grand narrative of Irish history.
But as independent Irish Senator Tom Clonan, himself a former military officer, told Euronews, while Ireland’s experience of colonisation makes it something of an outlier in Western Europe, most of its politicians or population do not take a negative view of Israel’s existence.
“Irish people support Israel and believe in the legitimacy of the state of Israel,” he said.
“We have strong links in terms of trade, and there’s a large diaspora of Irish Israelis. Chaim Herzog, the president of Israel for most of the 1980s, was an Irish-Israeli who grew up in Dublin! What we’re critical of are the actions of the Netanyahu government.
“Hamas committed truly genocidal attacks on October 7th, breaking all the laws around armed conflict, which it continues to do in Gaza. But at the same time, the Israeli military has failed to provide safe passage to the elderly, the sick, pregnant women and so on, as they are required to under the Geneva Conventions. Forcibly expelling civilians from their homes, firing on hospitals and schools and civilian areas – all of that and more is prohibited.
“That’s what Varadkar was referring to: proportionality of response, which is an objective standard in the law of conflict. In fairness to the British, for instance, when the IRA was setting off bombs in the UK and murdering innocent civilians, including children, the UK government didn’t order air strikes on republican neighbourhoods in Belfast!”
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has condemned Hamas’ attack, but is also criticizing Israel for “ignoring” calls for a ceasefire. And like party leaders to the left of Sinn Fein, she is also calling for the Israeli ambassador in Dublin to be expelled because of Israel’s actions since 7 October.
Varadkar has rejected that call, pointing out that not even the Russian ambassador has been expelled and warning that to eject Erlich would “disempower” Dublin as it tries to get 40-odd Irish citizens out of Gaza.
Varadkar’s partners in the coalition, centre-right party Fianna Fáil, meanwhile hosted Erlich at their annual party conference last weekend. Her appearance was met with outrage on the left, but party leader and current foreign secretary Micheál Martin defended the government’s decision not to expel her, pointing out that to do so would likely result in Ireland’s own ambassador being expelled from Israel just as they try to save Emily Hand and the other Irish citizens trapped in the crossfire.
All the while, Ireland’s voice in Europe remains a distinctive one. Clonan suggests that since Ireland has itself been through a difficult peace process at home, its leaders are perhaps particularly alert to double standards when it comes to the protection of civilians in conflict.
“I was very dismayed when Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Tel Aviv and gave absolutely unqualified support for Israel,” he says. “It must be remembered that when Russia targeted the electricity network in Ukraine, she said that hitting civilian targets there was a war crime.
“I would encourage her to reflect on that, and look at Israel’s actions through that prism as well.” — Euronews