Eliyahu Ben-Shaul Cohen (Hebrew: אֱלִיָּהוּ בֵּן
שָׁאוּל כֹּהֵן, Arabic: إيلي كوهين;
26 December 1924 – 18 May 1965), commonly known as Eli Cohen, was an
Israeli spy. He is best known for his espionage work in 1961–1965 in
Syria, where he developed close relationships with the political and
military hierarchy and became the Chief Adviser to the Minister of
Defense. Syrian counter-intelligence authorities eventually uncovered
the spy conspiracy, captured and convicted Cohen under pre-war martial
law, sentencing him to death in 1965. The intelligence he gathered
before his arrest is said to have been an important factor in Israel's
success in the Six Day War.
1 Early life and career
2.1 Trip to Damascus
2.2 Infiltration and confidence building
2.3 Intelligence collected
3 Conviction and death sentence
7 External links
Early life and career
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Eli Cohen was born in
Alexandria to a devout Jewish and Zionist family
in 1924. His father had moved there from
Aleppo in 1914. In January
1947, he chose to enlist in the Egyptian Army as an alternative to
paying the prescribed sum all young
Jews were supposed to pay, but was
declared ineligible on grounds of questionable loyalty. Later that
year, he left university and began studying at home after facing
harassment by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the years following the creation of Israel, many Jewish families
left Egypt. Though his parents and three brothers left for Israel in
1949, Cohen remained to finish a degree in electronics and to
coordinate Jewish and Zionist activities. In 1951, following a
military coup, an anti-Zionist campaign was initiated, and Cohen was
arrested and interrogated over his Zionist activities.
Cohen took part in various Israeli covert operations in the country
during the 1950s, though the Egyptian government could never verify
and provide proof of his involvement in Operation Goshen, an Israeli
operation to smuggle Egyptian
Jews out of the country and resettle
them in Israel due to increasing hostility there.
In 1955, a sabotage unit, made of Jewish Egyptian citizens and
recruited by Israel's secret police, operated against their native
Egypt and in
Operation Susannah attempted to destroy Egyptian
relationships with western powers. The unit bombed American and
British installations, expecting that this would be considered the
work of Egyptians. This event is referred to as the "Lavon Affair."
Egyptian authorities uncovered the spy ring and after a trial, two of
the group's members received the death penalty. Cohen had aided the
unit and was implicated, but no link between Cohen and the accused
could be found.
Following the Suez Crisis, the Egyptian government stepped up
Jews and expelled many of them. In December 1956, Cohen
was forced to leave the country. With the assistance of the Jewish
Agency, he emigrated to Israel, arriving in the Israeli port of Haifa
in a vessel travelling from Naples, Italy.
In 1957, Cohen was recruited by the Israel Defense Forces, and was
placed in military intelligence, where he became a counterintelligence
analyst. His work bored him, and he attempted to join the Mossad.
Cohen was offended when
Mossad rejected him, and resigned from
For the next two years, he worked as a filing clerk in a Tel Aviv
insurance office. In 1959, he married Nadia Majald, an Iraqi-Jewish
immigrant and the sister of author Sami Michael. They had three
children, Sophie, Irit and Shai, and the family settled in Bat Yam.
Mossad recruited Cohen after Director-General Meir Amit, looking
for a special agent to infiltrate the Syrian government, came across
his name while looking through the agency's files of rejected
candidates, after none of the current candidates seemed suitable for
the job. For two weeks he was put under surveillance, and was judged
suitable for recruitment and training. Cohen was then informed that
Mossad had decided to recruit him, and underwent an intensive
six-month course at the
Mossad training school. His graduate report
stated that he had all the qualities needed to become a katsa, or
He was then given a false identity as a Syrian businessman who was
returning to the country after living in Argentina. To establish his
cover, Cohen moved to Argentina in 1961.
Trip to Damascus
Cohen (in the middle) at the Golan Heights
Cohen moved to
Damascus in February 1962 under the alias Kamel Amin
Thaabet كامل أمين ثابت.
Infiltration and confidence building
The tactics Cohen used to build relations with Syrian high-ranked
politicians, military officials, influential public figures and local
foreign diplomacy community had been carefully planned by Mossad.
Cohen continued his social life as in Argentina, spending time in
cafes listening to political gossip. He also held parties at his home,
which turned into orgies for high-placed Syrian ministers,
businessmen, and others, who used Cohen's apartment "for assignations
with various women, including Defense Ministry secretaries, airline
hostesses, and Syrian singing stars." At these parties such highly
placed officials would "talk freely of their work and army plans. Eli,
who would feign intoxication, remained sober and listened carefully.
In addition to providing loans to government officials and acting as
an avid host, he was asked for advice by government officials, who
were often intoxicated by the alcohol he freely provided. Cohen
himself was not above the spicier part of a spy's life either. He had
seventeen lovers in Syria, all dazzling beauties with a fair degree of
family power." Some sources claim that he had established a good
friendship with Amin al-Hafiz.
In a 2001 interview with Al-Jazeera, Hafiz distanced himself from
Cohen. He said that such a friendship would be impossible given the
fact that he had been in
Moscow until 1962.
After Hafiz became Prime Minister, Cohen might even have been
considered for the position of Syrian Deputy Minister of Defense,
although Hafiz's secretary has denied that this was the case.
Cohen provided an extensive range of intelligence data to the Israeli
Army over a period of four years (1961–1965). Cohen sent
intelligence to Israel by radio, secret letters, and occasionally in
person—he secretly traveled to Israel three times.
His most famous achievement was the tour of the
Golan Heights in which
he collected intelligence on the Syrian fortifications there. Feigning
sympathy for the soldiers exposed to the sun, Cohen had trees planted
at every position. The trees were used as targeting markers by the
Israeli military during the
Six-Day War and enabled Israel to capture
Golan Heights in two days with relative ease. Cohen made repeated
visits to the southern frontier zone, providing photographs and
sketches of Syrian positions.
Cohen learned of a secret plan by
Syria to create three successive
lines of bunkers and mortars; the
Israel Defense Forces
Israel Defense Forces would
otherwise have expected to encounter only a single line.
Newly appointed Syrian Intelligence Colonel Ahmed Su'edani trusted no
one and disliked Cohen. Because of this, Cohen expressed fear of the
possibility of discovery and stated that he wished to terminate his
Syria during his last secret visit to Israel in November
1964—the twin purposes of the visit were to pass on intelligence and
to enable Cohen to witness the birth of his third child. Despite this,
Israeli Intelligence asked him to return to
Syria one more time.
Before leaving, Cohen assured his wife that there would only be one
more trip before he returned permanently.
In January 1965, Syrian efforts to find a high-level mole were stepped
up. Using Soviet-made tracking equipment and assisted by hired Soviet
experts, a period of radio silence was observed, and it was hoped that
any illegal transmissions could be identified. After large amounts of
radio interference were detected and traced to their source, on 24
January Syrian security officers broke into Cohen's apartment where he
was caught in the middle of transmission to Israel.
Conviction and death sentence
Eli Cohen, publicly hanged in the Marjeh Square,
Damascus on 18 May
After a trial before a military tribunal, he was found guilty of
espionage and sentenced to death under 'martial law'. Cohen was said
to have been repeatedly interrogated and tortured.
Israel staged an international campaign for clemency, hoping to
persuade the Syrians not to execute him. Israeli Foreign Minister
Golda Meir led a campaign, demanding the international community to
Damascus to consider the consequences of hanging Cohen.
Diplomats, Prime Ministers, and
Pope Paul VI
Pope Paul VI tried to intercede. Meir
even appealed to the Soviet Union. Despite international appeals,
and representations by the governments of France, Belgium and Canada
to persuade the Syrian government to commute the death sentence,
the death sentence decision was upheld.
On 15 May 1965, Cohen wrote in his final letter:
"...I am begging you my dear Nadia not to spend your time in weeping
about some thing already passed. Concentrate on yourself, looking
forward for a better future!"
On 18 May 1965, Cohen was publicly hanged in the
Marjeh Square in
Damascus. On the day of his execution, Cohen's last wish to see a
rabbi was respected by the prison authorities. While on his way to the
Marjeh Square in a truck, he was accompanied by Nissim Andabo, the
80-year-old Chief Rabbi of Syria.
On 20 September 2016, a video of Cohen's body after his execution was
Facebook by an unknown Syrian group called "Syrian art
treasures." No video of the execution was previously known to
Memorial stone reading Eliahu (Eli) Cohen in the "Garden of the
Missing Soldiers" on
Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
In November 1965, Cohen's wife, Nadia, sent a letter to Hafez al-Assad
and asked his forgiveness for Eli's actions, hoping to receive her
husband's remains. In February 2007 a Turkish official confirmed that
his government was ready to act as a mediator for the return of
Cohen's remains to his family from Syria.
In August 2008, Monthir Maosily, the former bureau chief of the late
Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, said Cohen's burial site is unknown,
claiming the Syrians buried the executed Israeli spy three times, to
stop the remains from being brought back to Israel via a special
Requests by Cohen's family for his remains to be returned to Israel
have been rejected by the Syrian authorities (as of September 2012).
Cohen's brothers, Abraham and Maurice, originally led the campaign to
return his remains. Maurice died in 2006. Eli's widow, Nadia, has
since led the campaign.
The Impossible Spy is a depiction of his life.
Cohen has since become a national hero in Israel. Many streets and
neighborhoods have been named for him. His son's
Bar Mitzvah in 1977
was attended by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Defense Minister Ezer
Weizmann, Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur, and several Mossad
operatives. A memorial stone has been erected to Cohen in the
Garden of the Missing Soldiers
Garden of the Missing Soldiers in
Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
^ Javits, Jacob (9 July 1971). "Superspy in an unholy war". Life. 71
(2). Retrieved 30 August 2011.
^ a b c d e f "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 19 July
2011. Retrieved 16 February 2011.
^ a b c d e Thomas, Gordon: Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the
^ Yuval Azoulay (14 May 2010). "Unending agony for legendary spy Eli
Cohen and his widow". Haaretz. Retrieved 30 August 2011.
^ a b c Katz, Yossi (2010). A voice called : stories of Jewish
heroism. Jerusalem, [Israel]: Gefen Publishing. pp. 111 ff.
^ Kahana, Ephraim (2006). Historical dictionary of Israeli
intelligence. Lanham, Md. [u.a.]: Scarecrow Press.
^ Schmitt, Abram N. Shulsky, Gary J. (2002). Silent warfare:
understanding the world of intelligence (3rd ed., rev. ed.).
Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, Inc. p. 14.
^ a b "
Eli Cohen article". Israel magazine. Spotlight Publication Ltd.
^ Allon, Daniel (2011). Gabriel Allon Novels 1–4. Penguin Group.
^ "Eli Cohen". Jewishvirtuallibrary.org.
^ الانقلابات في سوريا كما يراها أمين
الحافظ ح13 Al-Jazeera, 18 June 2001 (in Arabic)
^ "Eli Cohen". Jewishvirtuallibrary.org.
^ منذر موصلي: هكذا أعدم إبلي كوهين أشهر
جاسوس مر على العالم العربي
Syria News, 15 May
2007 (in Arabic)
^ Black, Ian; Morris, Benny (2003). Israel's secret wars : a
history of Israel's intelligence services ([Updated to include the
Persian Gulf War] ed.). New York: Grove Press. p. 227.
^ Youssef, Michael (2009). You want me to do what? : get off your
blessed assurance and do something! (1st ed.). New York: Faith Words.
^ Aldouby, Zwy (1971). The shattered silence: the
Eli Cohen affair.
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan.
^ Sanua, V. The History of Elie Cohen: An Egyptian Jew who became
Israel's greatest spy, sefarad.org; accessed 18 May 2017.
^ Roi Kais and Asaf Zagrizak (20 September 2016). "New footage emerges
Eli Cohen on the gallows". YNet News. Retrieved 20 September
^ Will Israel's superspy finally rest in peace? Archived 1 March 2007
at the Wayback Machine., The First Post, 20 February 2007.
^ Former Assad aide: Eli Cohen's burial site unknown Ynetnews, 30
^ The Impossible Spy, IMDB.com; accessed 18 May 2017
^ "The saga of Eli Cohen, Israel's greatest spy". Sdjewishworld.com.
Cohen's widow asks for his remains to be returned Israel National News
PM's speech at the ceremony marking 40 years since the death of Eli
Cohen Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Eli Cohen Files
Eli Cohen, moments after the execution (part 1)
Eli Cohen, moments after the execution (part 2), containing footage
Associated Press archives, 1965
ISNI: 0000 0000 6674 4572