Russia is working to locate the remains of Israeli spy Eli Cohen in order to repatriate them to Israel, according to a report on Saturday in the London-based Arabic-language news website Rai al-Youm.
According to the report, Russian soldiers, in coordination with Syria, have been searching for Cohen’s remains in recent days in a cemetery located in the al-Yarmouk refugee camp, near Damascus. The report says that the bones, if found, will be returned to Israel as part of a deal, but there was no indication of what Israel would be giving in exchange.
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Russia has been serving in recent years as a conduit between Israel and the Assad regime, due to its deep involvement in Syria.
Two years ago, Russia was the intermediary in the return of the remains of Zecharia Baumel, an Israeli soldier who was killed in the Sultan Yacoub battle during the first Lebanon war, in June 1982. The remains were reportedly found in the al-Yarmouk cemetery and transferred to Russia, from where they were sent to Israel in April 2019, a few days before an election.
In January 2020, Israel announced that it had released two prisoners, residents of the Golan Heights town of Majdal Shams. One had been a spy for Syria. According to the Prime Minister’s bureau, the two were released after Baumel’s remains had been returned, “as a diplomatic move and a goodwill gesture.”
Russia also recently the return of an Israeli woman who had crossed the border into Syria in early February. According to foreign reports, Israel committed in exchange to purchase hundreds of thousands of doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine. These will be delivered to the Syrian government. In addition, Israel revoked a community service penalty on a Druze woman from the Golan Heights, as well as returning two shepherds to Syria.
Eli Cohen, seen as the greatest Israeli spy ever to have operated in any Arab state, immigrated to Israel in 1957 after being deported from Egypt, where he was born and lived until then. In 1959 he was recruited to Unit 188 of the Israel Defense Forces, which dealt with operating agents, gathering intelligence and special missions in enemy countries. In 1961 Cohen was sent to Argentina to establish a cover story as an Argentinian of Syrian descent called Kamel Amin Thaabet. At the end of that year he was sent to Europe to bolster his cover story as the representative of a Belgian company, who was dispatched to Syria.
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In January 1962 Cohen came to Syria for the first time and settled in Damascus. He forged close ties with many senior Syrian officials and obtained detailed intelligence on the Syrian army and its activity, until he was captured in 1965 by Syrian security forces in Damascus. He was subsequently sentenced to death, and executed by hanging on May 18 of the same year.
His body was left hanging for seven hours in a Damascus square before being taken to an unknown burial site. Israel asked to have his bones returned several times during negotiations with Syria during the 1990s and during Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s tenure in 2007-2008. Israel has also contacted Russia in the last decade over repatriating his remains.