On 18 May 1965, Marjeh Square in Damascus was flooded with people to witness the hanging of Mossad’s master spy — Eli Cohen. It was a solemn day for Israel, as it has lost a talented spy. But even five decades after his hanging, he continues to be remembered and revered as one of the best spies in modern history.
As an 18-year-old student of Defence studies based in India, I got to know about Eli Cohen’s story through a video on YouTube, and ever since I have seen and read a lot of literature on Eli’s intriguing life story. Born in Egypt, he spent seven years of his childhood in Syria, before his family moved to Israel after 1956 Suez crisis. After border tensions with Syria in 1960, Unit 188 of Aman (Hebrew acronym for military intelligence) had selected Eli, from a file of rejected candidates, to work for them. As a young nation struggling to survive, espionage was the core pillar of Israel’s national security of Israel. Syria was a major adversary, and Israel needed someone to be present on ground and supply valuable information. Eli’s Arab looks and familiarity with the Syrian dialect of Arabic worked in his favour.
In 1961, Eli landed in Argentina where he was trained and given the identity of a Syrian businessman — Kamel Amin Taabeth. In 1962, he entered Syria via Lebanon and over the next four years, he infiltrated the highest ranks of the Syrian military and government, until he was caught.
Before signing up for espionage, Eliahu ben Shaoul Cohen worked as an accountant in a Tel Aviv insurance office. He was married to an Iraqi Jewish woman named Nadia and had three children. The family was settled in Bat Yam, unaware of Eli’s parallel life as a spy.
Eli alias Kamel continued to live his double life. He hosted parties at his home for high-ranking Syrian politicians and businessmen, where they could freely discuss their plans and army operations, thereby using his charm to obtain valuable intelligence information on ground. If rumors are to be believed, when Ba’ath party leader, Amin al-Hafez became Syrian president in 1963, he was considering making Kamel the deputy defense minister. This shows how successful Eli was in building contacts on ground.
Prior to the Arab-Israeli war in 1956, he toured the Golan Heights and gathered classified military briefings for Israel, enabling the Israeli forces to capture the Golan Heights in two days. The Israeli settlement Eliad on the Golan Heights is named after him because he played a key role in bolstering Israel during that tough period. Israeli PM at that time, Levi Eshkol’s praise for Cohen is worth mentioning. “Eli Cohen’s acts and the information that he gathered before the Six Day War were intelligence worth their weight in pure gold…” Israel won the six-day war in 1967 but lost a gem.
As he continues to be hated in Syria and respected in Israel, for rest of the world he’s an awe aspiring figure. During his final days, Cohen carved these words on his prison walls — “”I don’t regret what I have done, only what I could have done and didn’t have the chance to do.”
A proud and painful end!