The grandfather of 6-year-old Eitan Biran, who survived a cable car accident near Lake Maggiore this summer that killed both his parents, spirited the child to Israel via private jet this Saturday, according to a report in Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
Some family members described it as an international kidnapping.
According to the report, 58-year old Shmuel 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.
An attorney for the family subsequently confirmed to Aya Biran-Nirko, his paternal aunt, that Eitan and his grandfather were in Israel.
Attorneys for Peleg claimed that their client could not be guilty of kidnapping because he was unaware of a judicial order preventing Eitan from being taken abroad without the physical presence or express permission of his guardian.
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 Saturday, he was in the care of Biran-Nirko in the city of Pavia.
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Speaking with Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Biran-Nirko said that Eitan had grown up in Italy and that his family there was “very worried” about him. She condemned the “unilateral and very serious move by the Peleg family,” and accused the grandfather of having previously been “convicted of mistreating his ex-wife.”
Biran, who was supposed to start school this week, “arrived in Italy at the age of 1 month and 18 days, he is an Italian citizen, not just an Israeli,” Biran-Nirko stated.
According to La Repubblica, a local prosecutor has opened a kidnapping investigation into the matter.
In a statement carried by the paper, 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.”
In an interview with Channel 12 News, a friend of Aya Biran told the Israeli network that “the grandfather was supposed to return Eitan to Aya around 6:30 P.M., which did not happen. The grandfather severed contact with Aya. After a few hours, it became clear that without Eitan's permission he was flown to Israel.”
Speaking with the 103 FM radio station, Eitan’s maternal aunt Gali Peleg denied committing any crime, stating: “We did not kidnap him. We brought him home.”
She claimed that Eitan’s Israeli relatives were given little information on his wellbeing and that “if the judge had not scheduled appointments, we would not have seen him.”
“I am only speaking to clarify that we have acted for the good of Eitan,” she said.
“There was no abduction here,” Gali's mother, Etti, told the same radio station Monday that the child had wanted to “return to Israel for a long time,” and that he was currently undergoing medical care, “including psychological treatment, which should have been done a long time ago and not done,” at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer.
“The child is very happy that he returned to Israel, he did not know the family in Italy at all. There was no connection between the families at all. But I am taking care of him now, obviously, because I am the grandmother, I am Tal's mother. I take care of Eitan,” she said.
Responding to the abduction, veteran Italian journalist Gad Lerner shared an article he had previously written about the custody battle, harshly condemning the claim made by Eitan’s Israeli family that, should he remain in Italy, his Jewish identity would be “phased out.”
Instead of staying with relatives in the country in which he spent most of his life, they believe that Eitan “should instead undergo forced emigration in order to preserve a membership that would otherwise end up being ′’cancelled,’” he wrote, asserting that such views are “soaked in fanaticism and offensive: almost as if in Italy it was not possible to cultivate one's Jewish identity and an emotional connection with Israel. Or worse, as if nowadays Judaism can only be Israeli-centered.”