Double Agent's Widow Offers New Take on Eli Cohen Affair

Decades after the Eli Cohen affair there are still many questions, some minor, others major - among them, the way in which Syrian counterintelligence identified the Israeli spy (from the archive)

Reproduction of an Israeli stamp being issued to honour the Mossad intelligence agency spy Eli Cohen who was hanged 34 years ago in Damascus
Reuters/JWH/AA

This article was originally published in May 2005 and republished to coincide with the release of "The Spy" - a Netflix series about Eli Cohen's life.

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The Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, plans to name one of the buildings in its compound after Eli Cohen - its spy in Syria who was caught in Damascus, tried, convicted and executed 40 years ago. But even after four decades, there are still many questions related to the Eli Cohen affair, some minor, others major - among them, the way in which Syrian counterintelligence identified the Israeli spy.

Intelligence officers who investigated the issue offered two possibilities: The first is that it was Egyptian intelligence that identified Cohen and gave him up to the Syrians; the second, which is considered more probable, is that the demand for information was so great that frequent communications via radio to Mossad headquarters exposed Cohen to Syrian counterintelligence. Cohen was arrested in January 1965 while transmitting to his handlers.

But an interview published in the Cairo Times yesterday with the German-born Weltrude Scheffeldt-Biton suggests that Egyptian intelligence played the most important role in unmasking Cohen. Scheffeldt, 63, is the widow of Rifa'at al-Gamal, an Egyptian spy who reportedly operated in Israel for a number of years. In the interview, she said that her husband left behind memoirs, notes and other evidence.

Al-Gamal was born in 1927 and aspired to become an actor. Instead, he joined the Egyptian merchant marine and was involved in a number of scams, which resulted in his arrest by the Egyptian secret service in 1952. In exchange for his freedom, he agreed to work for Egypt's intelligence service.

His first assignment was to infiltrate the Jewish community of Alexandria. There he met members of the Jewish Underground, handled by Unit 131 of Israel's Military Intelligence, which was exposed by the Egyptians in 1954. According to Scheffeldt, al-Gamal wrote in his memoirs of his friendship with Marcelle Ninio, who was sentenced to four years in prison for her role in the Jewish Underground, and also about Eli Cohen. According to Scheffeldt, Cohen and al-Gamal were arrested together in 1954 and released shortly after. Cohen was released because he was not linked with the underground.

Cohen immigrated to Israel in 1957 and was recruited by Military Intelligence, to a unit that later became part of the Mossad. He was sent to Argentina, where he took on the guise of a businessman, scion of a Syrian family. Once Cohen had established his background, he was inserted into the "target country," Syria, and operated with great success for four years until his capture.

Al-Gamal, for his part, adopted the Jewish identity of Jacques Biton and immigrated to Israel from France on the orders of Egyptian intelligence. He set up a travel agency in Tel Aviv and developed ties with the upper echelons of Israeli society, including politicians. In 1963, during a business trip to Germany, he met Weltrude Scheffeldt, a divorcee, then 22 and with a small child, and married her. They had a son, Daniel, and after the Six Day War they celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In the 1970s, they left Israel for Germany and in 1982, al-Gamal, alias Jacques Biton, died of an illness.

Scheffeldt said that her husband never revealed his true identity, and she learned of it only after a television series aired in Egypt that described him as a national hero. But the series did not give al-Gamal enough credit, she said, and this led her to reveal his memoirs, which he wrote in secret and deposited with a lawyer for safekeeping.

According to al-Gamal's version, he saw a photograph in an Arab newspaper at a newspaper stand in Frankfurt's train station that showed Amin Kamel Thabet touring fortifications on the Golan Heights with Syrian officers. Al-Gamal rushed to inform his superiors that Thabet was none other than Eli Cohen, the Alexandrian Jew. The message was passed on to the Syrians, who arrested Cohen.

This version contradicts that of Israel's secret service. Various reports say that Biton was unveiled and offered the option of becoming a double agent. Using Biton, Israel "fed" Egypt with false intelligence that reportedly contributed to the Six Day War victory. If indeed Biton was a double agent - and Israeli intelligence prides itself on the quality of his work - then it is difficult to believe that he exposed Cohen. However, running a double agent is considered to be one of the most complex missions in intelligence work. There is always the risk that the agent remains loyal to his original handlers and has managed to fool his new bosses.