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In the early hours of the morning on May 18, 1965, Syrians gather around Marjeh Square in Damascus. They've come to see the public hanging of Eli Cohen, a man once believed, even by the highest Syrian officials, to be a wealthy Arab businessman, only to be revealed as an Israeli spy. Cohen's body can be seen hanging from a wooden post, covered in a sign that lists the crimes he has committed. Cohen's hanging was a sign that Syria was angry and embarassed that they were fooled; Cohen had sent valuable information back to Israel that thwarted many manuevers by Syria. To Israel, his death was a sign of martyrdom and Cohen was written into legend.
Eli Cohen, born Eliahu ben Shaoul Cohen, was an Israeli spy who has become a man of legend in Israel for his extensive intelligence work in Syria in the 1960s. In 1965, the Syrian Intelligence discovered that he was the mole whom had been sending top security information to the Israeli government and was publicly hung on May 18, 1965 at Marjeh Square in Damascus.1
Eli Cohen: Eliahu ben Shaoul Cohen was born on December 26, 1924 in Alexandria, Egypt. His parents were Syrian Jews who had left the city of Aleppo for Egypt some years earlier.
In 1949, a year after the creation of the state of Israel, Eli Cohen’s parents and three brothers moved to Israel, while Eli elected to stay behind in an attempt to organize Zionist activities. Cohen was questioned extensively by Egypt’s Intelligence Services for his pro-Israel activities, which occurred during Operation Susannah, of which several Israeli spies working in Egypt were hung.
In 1955, Cohen left for Israel to receive espionage training from the Israeli Intelligence and returned to Egypt the next year. However, he was immediately suspected of spying and was placed under surveillance by the Egyptian Intelligence. During the 1956 War/Suez Crisis, during which Israel took the Sinai Peninsula, Cohen was detained by Egyptian authorities and then expelled from Egypt with the rest of the Jews living in Alexandria. He returned to Israel on February 8, 1957.2
As a Spy in Syria: In 1960, Cohen was recruited by Mossad for a mission in Syria. Mossad was keenly aware of his assets as a spy: Cohen spoke Arabic, English, and French. Cohen’s alias was as a wealthy Syrian businessman, making a long-awaited return to Damascus after spending several years working in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Cohen, under the alias Kamel Amin Thaabet, moved to Buenos Aires in 1961. His wife, Nadia Cohen, an Iraqi-born Jew, was only told that Cohen was working for the Ministry of Defense. Cohen spent a year in Argentina, developing his alias and accruing several imperative contacts, mostly politicians and diplomats. In 1962, he moved to Damascus, where he continued his work of connecting with top leadership in Syria, in particular those of the Ba’ath party, which was on the precipice of taking control of Syria.3
“Thaabet” developed a reputation as an extravagant, wealthy businessman who threw parties filled with alcohol and women, to which he invited his new Syrian friends. At these parties, his compatriots spoke freely about their jobs, which Cohen then transmitted back to Israel. In 1963, a military coup ended with one of Cohen’s “friends,” Amin al-Hafiz, as the new president of Syria.
During his time as a spy, Cohen still made a number of trips back to Israel, both for debriefing and to visit his wife and three children. His last trip home was in the fall of 1964. At that point, Cohen was nervous about his future in Syria and decided that this would be his last time in Syria. However, on January 24, 1965, Syrian officials discovered that someone in his neighborhood was sending radio messages using recently acquired Soviet equipment. That day, Cohen’s apartment was raided and Cohen was caught sending a radio message.
Cohen was immediately and was interrogated under torture and placed on trial before a military tribunal behind closed doors. On March 31, 1965, he was sentenced to death. Several of Israel’s allies made attempts to stop the death sentence, from Pope Paul VI, philosopher Bertrand Russell, and Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.4 The attempts were futile: in the early hours of May 18, 1965, Cohen was publicly hanged in Marjeh Square in Damascus.
Jewish tradition dictates the importance of the body in burial rituals, but Cohen’s body was never returned to his family in Israel. His body was buried in an unmarked grave at an undisclosed location in Syria.5 A Syrian official told Nadia Cohen, Cohen’s wife, that the grave was destroyed and a neighborhood built over it. The Israeli government and Nadia continue their efforts to retrieve the body even today, over 50 years after his death.6
Cohen’s Legacy in Israel: Cohen has taken his place as an historical hero, his memory kept alive as a story immortalized as a tale of legend. In a very real way, his time spent as a spy in Syria aided the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in a number of ways, especially during the time leading up to and during the Six-Day War in 1967. For example, the IDF was able to find the locations of Syrian bunkers in the Golan Heights, since Cohen told them to mark them with eucalyptus trees, which gave them a huge advantage that eventually led them to their conquest of the Golan Heights during the War.7
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