Friday, January 28, 2011
This Week in History: The capture of Eli Cohen
On January 24, 1965, Syrian secret police raided the home of Damascus businessman Kamel Amin Tha’abet, arrested, tortured, hanged him.
On January 24, 1965, Syrian secret police raided an upscale apartment in Damascus and arrested businessman Kamel Amin Tha’abet. Accused of being an Israeli spy who had revealed some of Syria’s most closely guarded secrets, Tha’abet was tortured, quickly tried and publicly hanged several months later.
Eliahu Cohen was born in Egypt in 1924 to a Syrian father and Egyptian mother. Being a Jew in Egypt at the time, Cohen was denied many opportunities and faced discrimination. As he entered adulthood, Cohen became involved in Zionist organizations and was recruited by the Hagana, helping provide forged papers to Egyptian Jews to enable their escape to the newly-founded Jewish state of Israel. These first years of involvement with the Israeli security services would eventually serve as a forewarning to his final days in Syria.
According to an interview with Cohen’s brother, Maurice, Eli was involved in dangerous covert operations from his early days in Egypt. In the mid-1950s, the arrest of a dozen Jews in Egypt uncovered what would become known as the Lavon Affair. Among those swept up by the Egyptian secret police was Eli Cohen. The Egyptians, citing a lack of evidence, eventually released him. Maurice, nonetheless, claims he was involved in the sabotage operation aimed at disrupting Egypt’s relations with the US and European countries. Israeli sources familiar with the affair have, however, denied his involvement, saying that he was merely familiar with some of the operatives.
Eventually expelled by Egypt, Cohen made aliya at the end of 1956. Having been denied a translator position with the state’s early intelligence services because of his lack of proficiency in Hebrew, Eli began work as an accountant for an Israeli retail chain, according to interviews with his brother. During what may have been the most normal years of his life, Eli met his wife-to-be Nadia. The two were wed in 1959. However, the normalcy would not last.
By then fluent in Modern Hebrew, Cohen was recruited by Military Intelligence a few years after marrying. Realizing his obvious potential, considering Eli’s fluent Arabic and Syrian heritage, the IDF transferred him to the newly-formed Mossad where he underwent training and was quickly dispatched to Argentina, according to his brother Maurice.
Overnight, Eli Cohen became Kamel Amin Tha’abet, a wealthy Syrian businessman in Argentina who longed to return to his homeland. Emersing himself into the sizable Syrian expatriate community in Argentina, Tha’abet threw extravagant parties and built a reputation as a man who wanted nothing more than to move back to Syria and contribute to the country’s success, including the destruction of its new neighbor, Israel. With a cover story built, it was not long before he moved to Damascus.
Quickly gaining the trust and intrigue of senior Syrian officials, Tha’abet gained entry into influential circles in Damascus. He attended exclusive meetings of the ruling Ba’ath party and befriended senior governmental and military personalities. According to his brother, then a cryptographer for the Mossad, Tha’abet became a member of the Syrian National Council of Revolutionary Command. In his regular radio transmissions to Israel, he relayed vital information about Syrian operations that would save Israeli lives and provided warning of military moves and installations.
One of the most famous anecdotes of Tha’abet’s (Cohen) successful moves as a mole in the Syrian elite was an off-handed suggestion which led to the location and bombing of military bases in later wars. Tha’abet suggested to Syrian military officials that they line their army and air force bases with Euculyptus trees in order to provide their soldiers with relief from the harsh Middle Eastern sun. While the trees likely did prevent heat stroke among a handful of soldiers, they also proved an easy way for Israeli Air Force pilots to locate army bases from the air.
Other vital pieces of information sent back to Israel were details of plots by Palestinian terrorist groups to attack northern Kibbutzim and settlements, enabling preemptive action that doubtlessly saved many lives. Additionally, he warned his Israeli handlers that the Syrians were preparing to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River, an operation that if successful, would have effectively cut of Israel’s water supply.
In 1965, the Syrians employed Soviet experts to locate what they suspected was a spy passing vital information to their enemies. On January 24, 1965, the Soviet team successfully located a live radio transmission coming from a Damascus apartment and Syrian police swooped in before daybreak to arrest the suddenly exposed Eli Cohen. Interrogated, tortured and tried without representation, Tha’abet, or Cohen, was sentenced to death. On May 18, 1965, he was hanged in a public square in Damascus.
Numerous efforts have been made over the years to retrieve Cohen’s body for burial in Israel. It has been written that several covert Mossad operations came close to bringing him back to Israel, but all were foiled. Successive Israeli governments have attempted to involve Cohen in prisoner swaps, only to be rebuffed by Damascus. One Syrian official, in a 2008 radio interview, said even the Syrians no longer know where Cohen is buried. He explained that fearful of Mossad operations to retrieve the body, Cohen was buried three different times in three locations so that it would be impossible to locate it.
The story of Eli Cohen has become one of the most famous Israeli spy stories. Furthermore, along with several other notable Israelis who have fallen into enemy hands, he is a cause célèbre for returning the remains of Israeli heroes for Jewish burial in Israel. It is often speculated that only in a peace deal between the two countries will one of the Jewish state’s most successful spies be returned to his family.
On May 18, 1965, the Government of Syria executed Eli Cohen, despite protests from world leaders and Israel.
* He was never allowed a defense at his trial.
* He was brutally tortured during interrogation in defiance of international humanitarian law
* His body was never returned to his family.
One of the most memorable and daring attempts to infiltrate Syria, which at the time controlled the Golan Heights and frequently shelled the Israeli settlers down below is that of Eliahu ben Shaoul Cohen an Egyptian born Jew.
Eliahu ben Shaoul Cohen, worked as a Mossad agent in Damascus, Syria under the alias of Kamal Amin Ta'abet from 1962 until his exposure and execution on May 18, 1965. Cohen was able to supply considerable details on Syrian political and military matters because of his strong interpersonal skills and abilities to build close ties with business, military, and Ba'ath Party leaders, and Syrian President Amin el Hafiz. He was hanged in Martyr's Square with the television cameras rolling for the entire world to see.
Eli was privy to secrets of the Syrian elite including those of national security. Eli was considered to be named the Syrian Deputy Minister of Defense. He was the only civilian to receive private tours of military installations, even being photographed in the then Syrian controlled Golan Heights with high ranking Syrian officials looking over into Israel.
As a result Eli sent highly informative reports back to Israel detailing the Syrian water deviation project and each and every one of the outposts on the Golan, including tank traps designed to impede any Israeli attack.
Eli’s influence on Syrian officials helped Israel beyond measure. Eli suggested that the Syrians plant trees on the Golan near each of their fortifications. Based on the eucalyptus trees, Israel knew exactly where the Syrian fortifications were.
Two years after his death, in June 1967, the intelligence Eli Cohen provided enabled Israel to capture the Golan Heights in two days as part of Israel's victory in the Six Days War.
Eli Cohen was the greatest Mossad agent Israel has ever known. He was greatly admired by all, including the Syrians. His deeds fed and are still feeding the imagination and fantasy of many. He is a hero who sacrificed his life for the sake of Israel, his fellow Jews, his children and his family.
It is 38 years since he was hanged. The Syrian government still has not returned his remains to his family for a proper Jewish burial in Israel where 'Kaddish' can be said at his gravesite. It is Time; the Time Is Now, to demand that his remains be returned. Therefore, we call upon everyone to sign our Petition to Dr. Bashar el Assad, President of Syrian.
Through this web site, we pay tribute to Eli Cohen, Our Man in Damascus, Israel’s greatest Mossad Agent. We remember his deeds through the words of his brother, Maurice Cohen, who was in the same unit that activated Eli, revealing up-to-date facts which were not told surrounding the story of Mossad’s campaign in Syria. This is an international educational site to increase people's knowledge of the contribution Eli Cohen made to the survival of the State of Israel and the Jewish people; and the history of the Middle East at the time.
We hope to reunite his remains with the land and the family he loved so much.
Eli Cohen Official Website