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

TEL AVIV — The fate of a six-year-old boy who was the sole survivor of a deadly cable-car accident in Italy moved into an Israeli courtroom on Thursday, in a bitter international custody battle that has drawn world attention.

Lawyers for the boy’s aunt, who lives in Italy, and his grandfather, who lives in Israel, squared off in a closed hearing at a family court in Tel Aviv. The court set a new hearing date for next month and ruled that until then the child, Eitan Biran, would remain in Israel and spend time with both sets of relatives.

Eitan was the sole survivor of the May 23 crash on a mountain overlooking Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, which killed 14 people including his parents and younger brother.

The boy and his family, who were from Israel, had been living in Italy at the time of the accident. The whole family was taking a Sunday afternoon cable-car excursion up the nearly 5,000-foot peak of picturesque Mottarone mountain, when a cable snapped, sending the car plunging to the mountainside below and then tumbling down the steep slope. The causes of the accident are still under investigation.

Two days later, an Italian court appointed his paternal aunt, Aya Biran, who lived in a small town near Pavia, Italy, as his legal guardian, a ruling challenged by the boy’s maternal relatives in Israel.

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

Both sides of the family say that they have only Eitan’s best interests at heart.

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.

“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.

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

She said that Italy has been Eitan’s primary home since he arrived when he was weeks old so that his father, her brother, Amit Biran, could study medicine at the University of Pavia. The two families lived near each other, and Eitan and one of Ms. Biran’s daughters attended years of preschool together. He was set to start elementary school there last week.

Mr. Peleg says that Eitan’s parents always intended to return to Israel, where the majority of their relatives live, and that their stay in Italy was meant to end with Mr. Biran’s studies. Eitan and his family visited Israel often and spent nearly six months there last year.

“Eitan is an Israeli boy, he was born here” and has “Israeli roots,” Mr. Peleg said in an interview last week. “He has everything here. So why there? Why? All the family is here.”

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

The boy was seriously injured in the accident and though he is improving, still uses a walker and, when he leaves the house, a wheelchair.

Mr. Peleg said he had been told by one of his lawyers that he was not breaking any laws by bringing Eitan to Israel to seek better medical treatment.

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

A fuller article about the case will be published shortly.

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

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