The grandfather of a 6-year-old boy who survived an accident that killed his parents in May is under investigation after taking him to Israel.
ROME — A bitter custody dispute has flared over the fate of Eitan Biran, the sole survivor of a cable car crash that killed 14 people including his parents, after his paternal relatives in Italy accused his maternal grandfather of flying the boy to Israel over the weekend without their consent.
Eitan’s parents and a younger brother died on May 23 when a cable snapped as the car was arriving at its destination on a peak overlooking Lake Maggiore in Piedmont. The car suddenly slid backward before plunging into a mountainside. Two great-grandparents visiting from Israel also died. Eitan, 6, who lived with his family about two hours from the lake, was the sole survivor.
The family drama, which has gripped Italy and is playing out publicly across the Italian and international media, is just part of the fallout from the disaster, which struck a small lakeside community that saw its economy devastated during the pandemic.
Aya Biran, an aunt who lives near Pavia, a town in northern Italy, was granted custody of the child by a court in Turin in May, while he was still in the hospital with critical injuries.
Though he has improved, he still needs medical care, both physical and psychological, according to Ms. Biran’s lawyer, Armando Simbari. In August, a civil court ruled that the boy could not leave Italy unless he was with Ms. Biran, Mr. Simbari said.
But the family of the boy’s maternal relatives took issue with the custody decision, and his grandfather, Schmulik Peleg, hired lawyers to formally challenge it, said Paolo Sevesi, one of the lawyers. The family also hired a lawyer in Israel to begin adoption procedures there.
Mr. Simbari accused Mr. Peleg of taking advantage of his visiting rights to “de facto organize an international abduction of a minor.”
The aunt filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office, and on Monday, Mr. Peleg was placed under investigation for kidnapping, Mr. Sevesi said, confirming Italian media reports.
The prosecutor did not respond to requests for comment, and Mr. Peleg could not immediately be reached for comment.
Mr. Simbari, the aunt’s lawyer, said Eitan had lived in Italy since he was a year old and had both Italian and Israeli citizenship. The boy’s mother tongue was Italian, he said, though he also spoke Hebrew.
“We are very worried because this child was torn away from a familiar environment, so it’s a second trauma after the one he experienced in May,” Mr. Simbari said.
Ms. Biran, the aunt, told reporters on Sunday that Mr. Peleg had picked up Eitan on Saturday morning for an agreed-upon visit to go shopping for toys. After the boy did not return home, she said she began to call Mr. Peleg, who did not answer. On Saturday evening, she told reporters, she received a text message from the grandfather which read: “Eitan has returned home.”
The court ruling this summer had also ordered Mr. Peleg to return Eitan’s Israeli passport, which he did not do. “I can assume that with the passport, the grandfather was able to elude controls at the borders and bring the boy back to Israel,” Mr. Simbari said.
Lawyers for Mr. Peleg — the father of Eitan’s mother, Tal Peleg — rejected the claims of kidnapping, saying in a statement that the boy “was never deprived of his personal freedom.” They contended that Mr. Peleg did not break a court order, because he had never been formally notified that the child could not leave the country.
“Eitan’s state of health worries the maternal family, which has always been kept in the dark by doctors and courts that have hindered the participation of the maternal family,” the lawyers said in a statement. “For these reasons, his grandfather decided to submit him to the necessary medical checks in Israel.”
A spokesperson for Sheba Tel Hashomer hospital in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, confirmed that Eitan had been admitted but said they could not respond to other questions for privacy reasons.
The Peleg family has also challenged the initial ruling of the court in Turin, which granted guardianship of Eitan to his aunt, arguing that the case should have been decided by a juvenile court in Milan. The custody rights assigned to Ms. Biran were not definitive, they claimed.
The crash in May was Italy’s worst cable car accident since 1998. Several people, including the operator of the cable car and the owner of the company that managed it, are under investigation but have not been formally charged.
At a news conference on Saturday, Gali Peleg, Eitan’s aunt on his mother’s side who lives in Israel, said that the father’s family “didn’t know him at all.’’
“He has already lost one family,’’ she told reporters. “He doesn’t need to lose another one. He needs love and warmth.”
Franz Sarno, who is representing Mr. Peleg in the criminal case related to the causes of the accident, said he had not been told of his client’s plans to bring the boy to Israel. He said he hadn’t spoken to Mr. Peleg but could surmise that “a man who has lost a child,” as Mr. Peleg had lost a daughter, “can become desperate and do irrational things.”
“I know that they loved that child,” Mr. Sarno said of the maternal relatives.
Mr. Simbari said that Eitan’s family had planned on making Italy their home and that before the accident they had enrolled him in an Italian school.
“Today would have been his first day in elementary school, they are waiting for him, but he’s not there.”
Jonathan Shamir contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.