ROME—When a cable car carrying 15 people plummeted to the ground as it approached the summit at the top of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy last May, it seemed no one could possibly have survived. The accident was allegedly the result of sheer negligence after engineers were accused of jamming the emergency brakes open rather than repair them. But one child, Eitan Biran, a dual Italian-Israeli citizen who was 5 at the time and living in Italy with his parents and little brother, was pulled out of the twisted metal alive in what was hailed as a miracle. When he awoke from his medically-induced coma, he was told he lost his parents, sibling, and great-grandparents on his mother’s side who had been visiting his family in northern Italy for a post-COVID summer break.
The child was badly injured but was finally released from the hospital for outpatient rehabilitation in late June. The Italian government awarded temporary custody to his paternal aunt Aya Biran-Nirko, who lives in Italy and who says her own 6-year-old son provided comfort to his injured cousin. But on Saturday, his maternal grandfather Shmulik Peleg, a retired Israeli Defense Force officer, who had spent a great deal of time in Italy during his grandson’s rehabilitation, took him back to Israel without consent from the legal guardian. The grandfather is now under formal investigation for kidnapping by a prosecutor in Pavia where the child was living. Others who may be complicit are also being investigated, according to prosecutor Mario Venditti.
The grandfather says he had grown increasingly worried about the health care provided by the Italians and the family situation of the boy’s paternal aunt. So, he drove the child to Lugano on the Swiss border, chartered a private jet, and took the boy back to Israel over the weekend. It is unclear how he was able to get a minor out of the country without parental consent, but he is said to have maintained the child’s Israeli passport even though Italian authorities had asked him to hand it over by August 30, which he refused to do.
Aya Biran-Nirko, the boy’s paternal aunt and legal guardian, reported to authorities that the boy had been kidnapped when he did not return from a day out with his grandfather on Saturday. On Monday, the Peleg family confirmed they had taken young Eitan to Tel Aviv on Saturday via Lugano.
His maternal aunt Gali Peleg, who lives in Israel, had earlier raised the alarm about his care in Italy with the child’s paternal relatives. She had demanded custody of her dead sister’s son. Records show she had started the process of legal adoption, albeit with very little progress since the orphan child’s Italian citizenship gave Italy jurisdiction. “We did not kidnap Eitan,” she told Israel Radio station 103FM. “We brought him home. Eitan shouted with emotion when he saw us and said ‘finally I am in Israel.’ He kept on saying he is finally with his family.”
In June, when he was released from the Italian hospital, it was the maternal aunt who claimed the boy had been “abducted” by the paternal aunt in Italy, and that his deceased 26-year-old mother, Tal Peleg-Biran, who died in the cable car crash, would have wanted him to maintain his Jewish and Israeli identity, according to Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera.
His maternal grandmother Etti Peleg claimed in an Israeli radio interview that the child's health was in danger in Italy and that he himself wanted to return to Israel. She rejected the allegations of abduction. “He is very happy to be in this country,” she said, adding that he was undergoing a complete medical examination including psychological evaluations. “After four months, finally doctors will see what is going on with the boy. He has not seen any doctor except his aunt in Italy. It was like the cat guarding the cat cream. All she is is a prison doctor.”
But back in Italy, the story has a different twist. The paternal aunt, Aya Biran-Nirko, has called the grandmother’s accusations a lie and instead says she supports the local prosecutor who opened the formal kidnapping investigation on Monday. The prosecutor told The Daily Beast that he is worried about the boy in his grandparents’ care and referred to a 20-year-old criminal conviction against the grandfather for domestic violence against the grandmother when the couple was in the process of a divorce. The grandmother has since remarried. “This was a real international kidnapping,” Armando Simbari, the lawyer for Biran-Nirko, told The Daily Beast. “She was given guardianship by two courts who wanted Eitan to have continuity in his life here. He was stolen from the family he grew up with, and from the doctors still treating his trauma.”
Gad Solomon, a representative for the grandfather who allegedly kidnapped the boy, told The Daily Beast that remarks his ex-wife made on the radio were nothing but “an ambush” and that she “had no idea she was being interviewed.” But he did not deny them, reiterating that the grandmother called the child’s medical condition “the worst” and insisting that there had been “no kidnapping” but merely an adjustment to the child’s living situation.
Now that a court in Italy has formally opened an investigation into kidnapping charges against the grandfather, they will have to request the extradition of young Eitan to have him returned to his legal guardian in Italy. His paternal family said they will not abandon their efforts to bring him back until “the kidnappers” are jailed, calling the incident “another tragedy for Eitan.”