Six-year-old Survivor Kidnapped From Italy to Israel Must Be Returned, Court Rules

Court rules on custody battle after Italian-Israeli dual national Eitan Biran, the sole survivor of a cable car accident in Italy that killed his parents, taken to Israel by his grandfather

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A crashed cable car is seen after it collapsed in Stresa, Italy, in May.
A crashed cable car is seen after it collapsed in Stresa, Italy, in May.Credit: ALPINE RESCUE SERVICE/Handout via REUTERS

Six-year-old Eitan Biran, who survived a cable car accident near Lake Maggiore this summer that killed both his parents, will be returned to his aunt in Italy, an Israeli court ruled on Monday.

The boy's paternal aunt, Aya Biran Nirko, filed a civil custody suit following the abduction by his maternal grandfather, 58-year-old Shmuel Peleg, in September, seeking his return to Italy. 

The judge who made the ruling on Monday rejected the grandfather's claim that Eitan's usual home was in Israel, as well as the claim that he generally lived in both Israel and Italy. The judge noted that Eitan had moved to Italy with his family when he was only a month old. She also rejected Peleg's argument that special consideration should be given to the boy's parents' plans before they died to move to Israel. 

The abduction by Peleg was unlawful according to The Hague Convention and violated the rights of the boy's aunt, the judge further ruled. The ruling won't come into effect for 7 days, so that Peleg may file an appeal against the court's decision, in accordance with the law. 

Last month, Italian media reported that Biran’s grandfather had spirited the child to Israel via private jet, in an incident described by several family members as an international kidnapping.

Shmulik Peleg, maternal grandfather of Eitan Biran, leaves court in Tel Aviv, last month.Credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

According to a report in Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Peleg picked up the boy – who he believed was in poor “mental and physical condition” – for a court-ordered visit. Peleg, who had retained possession of Eitan’s Israeli passport, then drove him in a rental car to Lugano, Switzerland where he and his grandson boarded a chartered business jet to Tel Aviv.

A statement issued Monday by Nir Berko's lawyer on behalf of the family said that "although we congratulate the court's judgment, we believe that in this case there are no winners and no losers, there is only Eitan. All we want now is for Eitan to return a soon as possible to his home in Italy, to his friends at school, and to his family, and especially to the therapeutic frameworks he so desperately needs."

Eitan was the only survivor when the cable car he was riding with his 2-year-old brother Tom and parents Amit Biran and Tal Peleg-Biran, an Israeli couple studying and working in Italy, plunged to the ground at a popular tourist site in late May. Also killed were Tal’s grandparents Barbara and Itzhak Cohen, who were visiting Italy at the time. In total, 14 people lost their lives in the accident, which investigators later blamed on negligence by the gondola’s operators.

After being released from the hospital, Biran, who is a dual Israeli-Italian citizen, found himself at the center of an acrimonious custody dispute in which his family in Israel accused their Italian counterparts of abducting and mistreating him. Until September, he was in the care of his paternal aunt n the city of Pavia.

In a statement at the time of the abduction, Milo Hisbani, president of the Milanese Jewish community, condemned “the kidnapping of little Eitan,” which he called a “serious act that violates Italian and international laws.”