International Battle Over 6-Year-Old Cable-Car Survivor Goes to Court

The fate of Eitan Biran, whose parents were killed at an Italian mountain resort in May, has become an international cause pitting relatives in Israel against those in Italy.

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TEL AVIV — When a cable snapped, sending a cable car plunging down a mountainside in northern Italy last May, five-year-old Eitan Biran lost his parents, two great-grandparents and his two-year-old brother.

When he came home from the hospital, only his cat, Oliver, was waiting for him.

“I know it sounds stupid, but it’s the only thing that he had in his old house that was still with him,” said Eitan’s aunt, Aya Biran, who lives in a small town near Pavia, Italy. She says the boy should stay there, his home since he was two months old.

Eitan’s grandfather, Shmuel Peleg, says that Eitan’s parents always intended to return to Israel, where Eitan was born and where most of his relatives live.

“Eitan is an Israeli boy, he was born here,” said Mr. Peleg, who lives in Petah Tikva, a suburb of Tel Aviv. “He has everything here. So why there?”

The debate over the fate of the boy, now 6, the sole survivor of the May cable-car accident, has escalated into an international custody battle that has drawn world attention, with echoes of Solomonic justice, relatives in Italy and Israel each claiming to be looking out for Eitan’s best interests, and civil and criminal cases winding through the courts in both countries.

On Thursday, the latest episode played out at a hearing behind closed doors at a family court in Tel Aviv. The court set new hearing dates for early next month, including on a Saturday — a rapid schedule that appeared to indicate the court’s desire for a speedy resolution — and ruled that until then, Eitan would remain in Israel and divide his time between both sets of relatives.

Eitan and his family, who were from Israel, had been living in the Lombardy town of Travaco Siccomario since late 2015, while his father, Amit Biran, was studying medicine. On a sunny Sunday afternoon in May, the family took a cable-car excursion up the nearly 5,000-foot peak of picturesque Mottarone mountain, overlooking Lake Maggiore.

The cause of the crash, which killed 14 people, is still under investigation.

Three days later, an Italian court in Turin appointed his paternal aunt, Ms. Biran, as his legal guardian, a ruling challenged by the boy’s maternal relatives in Israel.

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“Eitan is an Israeli boy, he was born here,” says Shmuel Peleg, Eitan Biran’s maternal grandfather, seen here before the court hearing in Tel Aviv on Thursday.Credit…Corinna Kern/Reuters

But this month, the boy’s maternal grandfather, Mr. Peleg, spirited Eitan out of the country, to Israel via Switzerland, on a private plane. Mr. Peleg is now under investigation in Italy for possible kidnapping and could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty.

He has been questioned as a suspect by the Israeli police and had been placed under house arrest for several days pending an investigation.

Ms. Biran says that Eitan has been “ripped out of his family,” and out “of the country where he’s been living all his life,” disrupting months of physical and psychological care after the accident. The boy was seriously injured and still uses a walker and, when he leaves the house, a wheelchair.

“It’s a tragedy over a tragedy,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “It’s hell on the earth right now.”

She has called on the Tel Aviv court to apply The Hague Convention on abducted minors and immediately return Eitan to Italy.

“We applied to the family court in Tel Aviv to implement the Hague Convention, which was created precisely for such cases, the abduction of a child from his place of residence,” said Shmuel Moran, an attorney for Ms. Biran. “The court in Italy has clearly assigned Aya Biran as Eitan’s guardian. Mr. Peleg appealed the decision and lost, and when he did not succeed in the legitimate way, he turned to an illegal path.”

Mr. Peleg has challenged the validity of Ms. Biran’s appointment as Eitan’s guardian, arguing that the case was not heard in the proper court. He has appealed the appointment twice, and lost, and a third challenge is scheduled in a Milan court in October.

“I lost my faith in the Italian system,” he said, explaining why he brought Eitan to Israel. He had been frustrated, he said, that he could not communicate directly with the judges, and had no say in Eitan’s care.

Eitan is doing well in Israel, he said.

“Now that he is here, he’s sleeping near me, and he touches my hand, you know, all the night. He’s not releasing it,” Mr. Peleg said. “He’s so happy,”

Roberta Sacchi, a Rome-based psychologist who is frequently a consultant in custody cases, said that when both parents have died, the paramount consideration for a court is to “ensure that the quality of life that the child had before the event remains as stable as possible.”

A move can be traumatizing for a child, and “the tendency is to not remove a child from a known routine,” she said, adding that the court should consider whether and where the child went to school, or had strong ties to a relative.

In Eitan’s case, which she did not consult on, the judge in Turin who granted custody to Ms. Biran “respected this principle,” she said, because the child had gone to school in Italy, and had lived there.

Ms. Biran said that her family and Eitan’s lived near each other, and Eitan and Emilia, one of Ms. Biran’s daughters, attended preschool together. He was set to start elementary school with his cousin in Italy last week.

But none of that may be at issue for the Israeli court.

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The fallen cable car at the scene of the crash above Stresa, Italy, in May.Credit…Fabio Bucciarelli for The New York Times

Dov I. Frimer, an expert in child custody and a longtime professor on the Law Faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that the primary question before the Tel Aviv Court of Family Matters is to determine Eitan Biran’s “habitual residence” at the time of his parents’ death, not his future well-being.

“If the Italian court in fact issued a decision on guardianship, that ruling may potentially serve to tilt the scales of justice in favor of Italy rather than Israel,” he said.

According to two people present at the court hearing on Thursday, Judge Iris Ilotovich-Segal said she would not consider the issue of custody, only whether the child should be returned to Italy under The Hague convention. If that happens, the custody case will be decided in Italy.

Both sides have hired top guns for the battle.

Mr. Peleg is assisted by Ronen Tzur, one of the most famous media consultants and strategists in Israel, and Boaz Ben-Zur, a high-powered lawyer who is leading the defense of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges. Mr. Biran’s legal team includes Avi Himi, president of the Israel Bar Association.

Italian prosecutors are investigating how Eitan was, in their view, smuggled out of the country without the consent of Ms. Biran.

“We have to understand how a minor passed border controls at a Swiss airport and then entered into Israel without being accompanied by his guardian but simply by his grandfather, who had no authorization to take him abroad,” said Mario Venditti, the prosecutor in Pavia leading the case.

Mr. Peleg had Eitan’s Israeli passport, but that alone would not be sufficient documentation to travel abroad with a minor, Mr. Venditti said.

He said that he could request extradition for suspected kidnapping, even before formal charges are made.

Mr. Venditti dismissed reports in the Italian media that Mr. Peleg had been assisted by the Israeli spy agency Mossad. But he said investigators were looking into whether Mr. Peleg might have had outside help getting Eitan to Israel without being stopped.

Mr. Peleg said he had “nothing to do with Mossad.”

One of his lawyers had told him that he could travel with Eitan “wherever I want,” he said. “So I understood everything was ok.”

His Italian lawyers note that Ms. Biran had not been granted full custody, a decision that would be up to a juvenile court in Milan, which has not ruled yet in the case.

“It’s all been very hard for him,” Mr. Peleg said of his grandson. He said that Eitan would cry when he returned the boy to his aunt’s house after visits in Italy. “I believe that everyone who has children and loves them, when they see them suffer, they won’t leave them alone,” he said.

Ms. Biran says it is Mr. Peleg who has shattered any serenity Eitan may have gained during months of physical and psychological recovery.

She said she was putting her faith in the legal systems in both countries, “that they will really see what Eitan’s best interests are and make that decision on facts, all the facts, and the real facts.”

On Saturday morning Sept. 11, Mr. Peleg picked up Eitan from her house for an agreed-upon visit to go shopping for toys. Eitan promised his cousins that he’d be back for dinner with toys for them.

Instead, that evening Ms. Biran received a text message from Mr. Peleg saying, “Eitan has returned home.”

A court will now decide if that’s true.

Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv, and Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome.

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