This Week in History: The capture of Eli Cohen

On January 24, 1965, Syrian secret police raided the home of Damascus businessman Kamel Amin Tha’abet, arrested, tortured, hanged him.

eli cohen 298.88 (photo credit: )
eli cohen 298.88
(photo credit: )
On January 24, 1965, Syrian secret police raided an upscale apartment in Damascus and arrested businessman Kamel Amin Tha’abet. Accused of being an Israeli spy who had revealed some of Syria’s most closely guarded secrets, Tha’abet was tortured, quickly tried and publicly hanged several months later.
Eliahu Cohen was born in Egypt in 1924 to a Syrian father and Egyptian mother. Being a Jew in Egypt at the time, Cohen was denied many opportunities and faced discrimination. As he entered adulthood, Cohen became involved in Zionist organizations and was recruited by the Hagana, helping provide forged papers to Egyptian Jews to enable their escape to the newly-founded Jewish state of Israel. These first years of involvement with the Israeli security services would eventually serve as a forewarning to his final days in Syria.
According to an interview with Cohen’s brother, Maurice, Eli was involved in dangerous covert operations from his early days in Egypt. In the mid-1950s, the arrest of a dozen Jews in Egypt uncovered what would become known as the Lavon Affair. Among those swept up by the Egyptian secret police was Eli Cohen. The Egyptians, citing a lack of evidence, eventually released him. Maurice, nonetheless, claims he was involved in the sabotage operation aimed at disrupting Egypt’s relations with the US and European countries. Israeli sources familiar with the affair have, however, denied his involvement, saying that he was merely familiar with some of the operatives.
Eventually expelled by Egypt, Cohen made aliya at the end of 1956. Having been denied a translator position with the state’s early intelligence services because of his lack of proficiency in Hebrew, Eli began work as an accountant for an Israeli retail chain, according to interviews with his brother. During what may have been the most normal years of his life, Eli met his wife-to-be Nadia. The two were wed in 1959. However, the normalcy would not last.
By then fluent in Modern Hebrew, Cohen was recruited by Military Intelligence a few years after marrying. Realizing his obvious potential, considering Eli’s fluent Arabic and Syrian heritage, the IDF transferred him to the newly-formed Mossad where he underwent training and was quickly dispatched to Argentina, according to his brother Maurice. 
Overnight, Eli Cohen became Kamel Amin Tha’abet, a wealthy Syrian businessman in Argentina who longed to return to his homeland. Emersing himself into the sizable Syrian expatriate community in Argentina, Tha’abet threw extravagant parties and built a reputation as a man who wanted nothing more than to move back to Syria and contribute to the country’s success, including the destruction of its new neighbor, Israel. With a cover story built, it was not long before he moved to Damascus.
Quickly gaining the trust and intrigue of senior Syrian officials, Tha’abet gained entry into influential circles in Damascus. He attended exclusive meetings of the ruling Ba’ath party and befriended senior governmental and military personalities. According to his brother, then a cryptographer for the Mossad, Tha’abet became a member of the Syrian National Council of Revolutionary Command. In his regular radio transmissions to Israel, he relayed vital information about Syrian operations that would save Israeli lives and provided warning of military moves and installations.
One of the most famous anecdotes of Tha’abet’s (Cohen) successful moves as a mole in the Syrian elite was an off-handed suggestion which led to the location and bombing of military bases in later wars. Tha’abet suggested to Syrian military officials that they line their army and air force bases with Euculyptus trees in order to provide their soldiers with relief from the harsh Middle Eastern sun. While the trees likely did prevent heat stroke among a handful of soldiers, they also proved an easy way for Israeli Air Force pilots to locate army bases from the air.
Other vital pieces of information sent back to Israel were details of plots by Palestinian terrorist groups to attack northern Kibbutzim and settlements, enabling preemptive action that doubtlessly saved many lives. Additionally, he warned his Israeli handlers that the Syrians were preparing to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River, an operation that if successful, would have effectively cut of Israel’s water supply.
In 1965, the Syrians employed Soviet experts to locate what they suspected was a spy passing vital information to their enemies. On January 24, 1965, the Soviet team successfully located a live radio transmission coming from a Damascus apartment and Syrian police swooped in before daybreak to arrest the suddenly exposed Eli Cohen. Interrogated, tortured and tried without representation, Tha’abet, or Cohen, was sentenced to death. On May 18, 1965, he was hanged in a public square in Damascus.
Numerous efforts have been made over the years to retrieve Cohen’s body for burial in Israel. It has been written that several covert Mossad operations came close to bringing him back to Israel, but all were foiled. Successive Israeli governments have attempted to involve Cohen in prisoner swaps, only to be rebuffed by Damascus. One Syrian official, in a 2008 radio interview, said even the Syrians no longer know where Cohen is buried. He explained that fearful of Mossad operations to retrieve the body, Cohen was buried three different times in three locations so that it would be impossible to locate it.
The story of Eli Cohen has become one of the most famous Israeli spy tales. Furthermore, along with several other notable Israelis who have fallen into enemy hands, he is a cause célèbre for returning the remains of Israeli heroes for Jewish burial in Israel. It is often speculated that only in a peace deal between the two countries will one of the Jewish state’s most successful spies be returned to his family.