Cohen has become legendary for his espionage exploits on behalf of the Jewish state, which included infiltrating the highest echelons of the Syrian government in the 1960’s. Eventually caught, Cohen was publicly hanged in Damascus in 1965.
Al Quds also claims that in conjunction with Jordan, Israel is making preparations for a possible joint Israeli-American operation in Syria. “The Jordanian tribal front warned that there exists secret contacts between Israel and dissident commanders from the Syrian army,” the newspaper states, “with support from some Jordanian circles.” The story goes on to note that the Jordanian tribes “facilitated the exit of dissident Syrian commanders to the occupied territories.”
The Jordanians had knowledge of meetings that took place between the dissident commanders and the Israeli officials in Jordan that were intended “to prepare for an American-Zionist plan in Syria in order to protect the borders of the occupied Golan.”
Eli Cohen was born into an Orthodox and Zionist family in Alexandria, Egypt in December 1924. His father had moved there from Aleppo in Syria in 1914. In January 1947, Eli 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 in the Arab country to finish a degree in electronics and to coordinate Jewish and Zionist activities. In 1951, following a military coup in Egypt, 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 anti-Semitism there.
Following the Suez Crisis, the Egyptian government stepped up persecution of 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 the Mossad rejected him, and resigned from military counterintelligence. For the next two years, he worked as a filing clerk in a Tel Aviv insurance office, and married Nadia Majald, an Iraqi-Jewish immigrant, in 1959. They had three children, and the family eventually settled in Bat Yam.
The Mossad ultimately 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 the Mossad had decided to recruit him, and underwent an intensive, six-month course at the Mossad training school, and his graduate report stated that he had all the qualities needed to become a field agent.
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.
Cohen moved to Damascus in 1962 and eventually gained the confidence of many Syrian military and government officials under the alias Kamel Amin Thaabet. Cohen sent intelligence to Israel by radio, secret letters, and occasionally in person. His most famous achievement was when he toured the Golan Heights, and 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. Cohen made repeated visits to the southern frontier zone, providing photographs and sketches of Syrian positions.
Cohen made many friends with high-ranking Syrian generals while undercover. Some sources even say that he had established a good friendship with Amin al-Hafiz. Hafiz said that this was not true in a 2001 interview in which 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 may even have been considered for the position of Syrian Deputy Minister of Defense, though Hafiz’s secretary has denied that this was the case.
Cohen learned of an important secret plan by Syria to create three successive lines of bunkers and mortars; the IDF would otherwise have expected to encounter only a single line.
In 1964, Cohen secretly returned to his home in Bat Yam for the birth of his third child. He 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, Cohen was caught in the act of transmitting to Israel and arrested in a pre-dawn raid on January 24. After a trial before a military tribunal, he was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death, without the possibility of an appeal. Cohen was repeatedly interrogated and tortured.
Israel staged an international campaign for clemency, hoping to persuade the Syrians not to execute him. Hoping to put international pressure on Syria to spare Cohen’s life, the Israelis approached many governments to press for clemency, and even appealed to the Soviet Union to intercede. Despite many international appeals, including from Pope Paul VI and the governments of France, Belgium and Canada, to persuade the Syrian government to commute the death sentence, he was publicly hanged by Syria on May 18, 1965.
Requests by Cohen’s family for his remains to be returned to Israel have been denied by the Syrian government. 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 that Eli Cohen’s burial site is unknown, claiming that the Syrians buried the executed Israeli spy three times, to stop the remains from being brought back to Israel via a special operation. 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 film The Impossible Spy is a depiction of the life of Eli Cohen. He is featured at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. A memorial stone has been erected to Cohen in the Garden of the Missing Soldiers in Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
In 2005, Cohen was voted the 26th-greatest Israeli of all time, in a poll by the Israeli news website Ynet to determine whom the general public considered the 200 Greatest Israelis.