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Relatives suspect ‘brainwashing’ of boy who survived Italy cable car crash

Paternal uncle and aunt visit child in Tel Aviv after maternal grandfather removes him from Italy without knowledge of guardians

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

The paternal relatives of a 6-year-old boy who survived an Italian cable car crash in May that killed his immediate family and is now at the center of a bitter custody battle, said that they are worried the child is showing “signs of incitement and brainwashing” after being whisked away from Italy to Israel by his maternal grandfather in a suspected kidnapping last week.

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.

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 his paternal aunt, Aya Biran-Nirko, an Israel-born doctor, near Pavia in northern Italy.

Biran’s paternal relatives say that he was taken out of Italy last week without their knowledge and have filed a formal request with the Italian court system seeking Eitan’s return to Italy, saying that Peleg had failed to return Eitan to her home as agreed to last Saturday.

Italian authorities opened an investigation into the matter this week.

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

Shmulik Peleg, Eitan’s maternal grandfather, has been questioned by Israeli police on kidnapping suspicions and placed under house arrest amid an ongoing investigation.

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

On Friday, the 58-year-old Peleg defended his decision to bring the child to Israel from Italy last week, denying that he kidnapped the boy, and said that Eitan was “happy, surrounded by his family members,” in an interview with Channel 12 news.

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

On Saturday, Eitan’s uncle, Hagai (Biran-Nirko’s brother) and his wife said that they visited the child at the grandfather’s home in Tel Aviv and although the child seemed to be physically well, “it was worrying to see that little Eitan showed clear signs of incitement and brainwashing.” The statement was delivered via the couple’s lawyer after the visit, which lasted about an hour.

The child, they said, “recited out-of-context statements and planted messages.” The boy’s “return to his home in Italy seems more urgent to us than ever,” they added.

Peleg has 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.”

Amit Biran (right), his wife Tal Peleg-Biran and their son Tom Biran, who were killed on May 23, 2021, when a cable car collapsed near the summit of the Stresa-Mottarone line in the Piedmont region, northern Italy. (Facebook)

He claimed that 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.

Peleg and the boy’s other relatives in Israel deny abducting him and insist they are acting in his interest.

However, prosecutors in the northern Italian city of Pavia said that 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 that 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, on May 24, 2021. (AP/Antonio Calanni)

Peleg told Channel 12 that he had given up on contesting custody in the Italian court system and said that 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.”

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