Grandfather defends taking child survivor of Italy cable car crash to Israel

Shmulik Peleg denies kidnapping Eitan Biran, 6; says his domestic violence conviction is irrelevant; paternal relatives visit boy in Israel: ‘Worrying to see signs of brainwashing’

Shmulik Peleg, the maternal grandfather of Eitan Biran, in an interview broadcast September 17, 2021 (Channel 12/Screen grab)
Shmulik Peleg, the maternal grandfather of Eitan Biran, in an interview broadcast September 17, 2021 (Channel 12/Screen grab)

The grandfather of a 6-year-old who survived an Italian cable car crash in May that killed his immediate family and is now the target of a bitter custody battle, on Friday defended his decision to bring the child to Israel from Italy last week, denying he kidnapped the boy.

Eitan Biran has become the subject of a legal fight after his parents, baby brother and two great grandparents were all killed when a cable snapped on the aerial tram bringing weekend visitors to the top of the Piedmont region’s Mottarone Mountain on May 24. A total of 14 people were killed, with Biran, who was hospitalized for weeks, the only survivor.

Biran’s paternal relatives say he was taken out of Italy last week without their knowledge and have filed a legal complaint seeking his return.

Shmulik Peleg, his maternal grandfather, was questioned by Israeli police on kidnapping suspicions and placed under house arrest amid an ongoing investigation.

In an interview with Channel 12 broadcast Friday, the 58-year-old Peleg said Biran was “happy, surrounded by his family members.”

“He is in the place where he is supposed to be, in his home, in Israel,” he said.

“My life changed when we lost five people in a horrific disaster,” he added. “Three generations were wiped out in one moment, and that’s something that leaves you with a hole in your heart. You are a completely different person afterwards.”

The Biran family, with Eitan on the right. (Courtesy)

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 the child would live with his paternal aunt, Aya Biran-Nirko, an Israel-born doctor, near Pavia, in northern Italy.

The aunt and her husband want to raise Eitan alongside their two daughters, while a maternal aunt in Israel has also said she wishes to adopt the child.

Peleg acknowledged driving the child from Italy into Switzerland before flying him back to Israel, saying “we departed in a totally legal way.” He insisted that his “thoughts are devoted only to the good of the child, the good of Eitan.”

Peleg claimed he did not take a regular flight out of Italy because he wanted to travel with the child as fast as possible without exposing him to other people. He said that Israeli authorities had approved his and Eitan’s passports the day before they made the journey.

Rescuers work by the wreckage of a cable car after it collapsed near the summit of the Stresa-Mottarone line in the Piedmont region, northern Italy, Sunday, May 23, 2022. (Italian Police via AP)

Italian authorities opened an investigation this week. The boy’s paternal aunt filed a formal request with the Italian court system seeking Eitan’s return to Italy, saying that Peleg last Saturday had failed to return Eitan to her home as agreed.

Eitan’s relatives in Israel deny abducting him and insist they are acting in his interest.

However, prosecutors in the northern Italian city of Pavia said they were seeking the return of the child to Italy in accordance with the Hague Convention on Children’s Rights, accusing Peleg of aggravated kidnapping.

“The Hague? I’m a grandfather, I’m the boy’s grandfather. I do not know about The Hague, I am the grandfather of the child,” he told Channel 12. Peleg said that he held legal consultations before spiriting Biran out of Italy.

Peleg was also questioned on his past conviction for domestic violence — in 2003, he entered a guilty plea for four counts of violence against his wife and was sentenced to 15 months probation and a fine.

Peleg said the conviction did not have “the smallest or most basic connection to Eitan” and pointed to the fact that he was given joint custody of his children in his divorce settlement a number of years after the conviction.

People stand in front of a newsstand displaying a daily headline reading in Italian ‘Mottarone, tragedy with 14 dead ‘ in Stresa, northern Italy, May 24, 2021. (AP/Antonio Calanni)

Peleg told Channel 12 he had given up on contesting custody in the Italian court system and said he expected the boy to understand once he got older.

“I believe that one day Eitan will grow up and say grandfather, you did everything for me, you saved me,” he said, breaking into tears. “And my daughter, who one day will meet me in heaven, will be proud of me that I saved her son.”

Meanwhile, after Italian officials met with the boy in Tel Aviv a day earlier, two of the child’s paternal relatives met with Eitan in Israel on Saturday at his grandfather’s home.

Eitan’s uncle Hagai and his wife played with the boy for a little over an hour and said in a statement via their lawyers that although the child seemed to be physically well, “it was worrying to see that little Eitan showed clear signs of incitement and brainwashing.”

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