The bitter custody battle over a six-year-old Israeli boy who was the sole survivor of a cable car crash in Italy inched forward on Monday with a preliminary hearing at a Tel Aviv family court, where it was decided that further hearings will be held in two weeks and the child will spend time with both sides in the meantime.
Eitan Biran’s relatives on both sides attended the session in Tel Aviv, in a legal fight that spans both countries where his remaining relatives reside. Eitan’s parents, younger brother and two great-grandparents were among 14 people killed when the cable car carrying them crashed into a mountainside in May.
The child’s survival sparked an immediate international dispute between his maternal and paternal families that has involved allegations of abduction, after he was secretly whisked away from Italy and brought to Israel.
Members of both families met in family court in Tel Aviv on Monday, a next step in the dispute. Those present included Eitan’s paternal aunt Aya Biran-Nirko, who lives in Italy and has filed a formal request with the Italian court system seeking Eitan’s return to Italy.
Also attending Monday’s hearing was the child’s maternal grandfather, Shmulik Peleg, who spirited the boy away to Israel. Gali Peleg, the boy’s maternal aunt who is seeking custody of him in Israel, also arrived at the court.
During the court hearing, the families agreed that while waiting for a decision, Eitan will spend time with both his paternal and his maternal families, according to the lawyers for both families.
The next hearing will be held on October 8. Meanwhile, Eitan will remain in Israel and will stay alternately with both Biran-Nirko and Shmulik Peleg, according to the joint statement.
Eitan and his parents were living in Italy at the time of the accident, and after his release from a Turin hospital following weeks of treatment, Italian juvenile court officials ruled that the child would live with Biran-Nirko, an Israel-born doctor, near Pavia in northern Italy.
Shmulik Peleg has acknowledged driving the child from Italy into Switzerland before flying him back to Israel, telling Israel’s Channel 12 news that “we departed in a totally legal way.”
Peleg was questioned by Israeli police on kidnapping suspicions and placed under house arrest pending an ongoing investigation. Italian authorities also have opened an investigation.
Eitan’s relatives in Italy say that he was taken without their knowledge and are seeking his return. The child’s relatives in Israel have denied to local media that they abducted Eitan and insist that they are acting in his interest.
The hearings are closed to the public, but Israeli media has reported that the lawyers for Biran-Nirko and the paternal family will argue that Eitan should be returned immediately to Italy since that is where he has always lived, since his first language is Italian, and since his medical and psychological rehabilitation process has been in Italy.
They will warn that Shmulik Peleg could take more steps aimed at keeping Eitan in Israel, noting that he has a criminal record for domestic violence. They will say his actions violate the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, on which Israel is a signatory.
Lawyers for Peleg and the Israel-based maternal family will argue that the parents had moved only temporarily to Italy for studies and had taken concrete actions preparing for a return to Israel, including searching for an apartment and for a school for Eitan.
They will argue that the current case doesn’t match the definition of an abduction under the Hague Convention, since Eitan had been spending several months every year in Israel and since his removal from Italy comes in the context of a rare case of a dispute between the two families of deceased parents in two countries, where legal precedent is virtually nonexistent.
Additionally, they will argue that the legal process in Italy that led to Biran-Nirko getting custody over Eitan was flawed and unfair.
Biran-Nirko arrived in Israel on Sunday and said in a statement that her goal was to “return [him] to his home in a peaceful way without delay.”
She said that she is “disturbed by the reports about Eitan’s psychological and mental condition and what is being done to him by his kidnappers while he is in their hands.”
Biran-Nirko and her husband want to raise Eitan alongside their two daughters, while Gali Peleg, the Israel-based maternal aunt, has also said that she wishes to adopt the child.