This Day in Jewish History

1965: A Humiliated Syria Hangs Israeli Spy Eli Cohen

Cohen had penetrated the highest echelons of the Syrian command and suspected they were hunting for a mole. But he went back one more time.

The trial of Eli Cohen (left), Damascus, 1965.
AFP

On May 18, 1965, Eli Cohen, the Israeli intelligence agent who succeeded in penetrating the highest levels of Syria’s political and military elite before being arrested and convicted of espionage, was executed by hanging in Damascus’ Marjeh Square. So humiliating was the Eli Cohen affair for Syria that to this day, 50 years later, no government in that country has been willing to consider returning his remains to Israel for burial. Eliyahu ben Shaul Cohen was born in Alexandria, Egypt in December 1924. Both his parents, Shaul Cohen and the former Sophia Tawil Cohen, were Syrian-born, and came to Alexandria earlier in the 20th century.

In 1949, Eli’s parents and three brothers joined much of the Egyptian Jewish community in leaving the country; in their case, they went to Israel. Eli, however, remained behind to finish his engineering studies, and also to help facilitate the departure of additional Jews for Israel.

Cohen added more clandestine assistance to Israel to his resume, and in 1955 was apparently one of those involved in the Operation Susanna plot to carry out a number of terror attacks in Cairo. The plot failed, and several local Jews were arrested and put on trial, but Cohen was not one of them. (When the plot backfired, it led to a decade of recriminations in Israel that are referred to collectively as the “Lavon Affair.”)

After the 1956 Suez War, it became dangerous for Cohen to remain in Egypt, and finally, in December, 1956, he made his way to Israel by way of Naples.

On arrival, Cohen apparently sought work with the same Military Intelligence unit, 131, that had initiated Operation Susanna in Cairo, but was rejected because, though intelligent, personable and courageous, he was deemed to be potentially reckless. He took a job as a bookkeeper in Tel Aviv, until he was approached by the same MI unit that had recently turned him down.

Reportedly, Meir Amit, the new head of Unit 131, was actively seeking someone to work behind enemy lines in Syria, and he came upon Cohen’s previous application.

By the time Cohen was recruited in late 1960, he had married the former Nadja Majald, a young immigrant from Iraq (her brother is novelist Sami Michael), with whom he would have three children. But he needed the extra income, and he was drawn to danger, so he agreed.

Eli Cohen underwent extensive training and was given a new cover identity before being relocated in early 1961 to Buenos Aires. His cover identity was that of Kamel Amin Thaabet, a Syrian businessman who had been abroad for years, and was longing to return to Damascus.

Once in Damascus in January 1962, he used the contacts he had made in Argentina to quickly ingratiate himself with the Syrian elite. “Thaabet” was a wealthy nationalist who hosted parties rich in alcohol and women, and was generous with both loans and advice. After a military coup in March 1963, many of his friends became top government officials, including Amin al-Hafiz, the president.

Cohen reported back to Israel via radio transmissions – hundreds of them – and also in reports written in invisible ink and sent via Europe. He also made several lengthy home visits, the last one in the autumn of 1964.

By then, he was beginning to become nervous. But he agreed to one more stint in Syria.

His anxiety was not unfounded, as the Syrians were now actively searching out a mole. On January 24, 1965, using newly received Soviet tracking equipment, secret police tracked him down in the act of sending a radio message.

Cohen was interrogated under torture and finally tried behind closed doors before a military tribunal, which sentenced him to death on March 31, 1965.

Despite appeals for clemency from such figures as Pope Paul VI and philosopher Bertrand Russell, Cohen’s sentence was carried out on this day, 50 years ago.

The information Eli Cohen sent back to Israel was extensive and much of it was of great strategic value. It included the precise locations of Syrian bunkers on the Golan Heights, which was instrumental in the Israeli conquest of the Heights two years later, in the Six-Day War.