The Syrian Jew Who Saved Israel
By: David Mizrahi
The greatest hero of the Six Day War of 1967 – unquestionably the high watermark of modern Israeli military history – was most likely a man who had died two years before the war’s outbreak.
His name was Eli Cohen, an Egyptian-born Jew of Syrian ancestry whose grandparents had emigrated to Egypt from Halab (Aleppo, Syria) before World War I. Much like the story of the State of Israel itself, the story of Eli Cohen is one of both joy and sorrow, pride and grief, inspiration and disappointment. It is the story of a man who courageously fought against all odds to defeat a ruthless enemy, eventually being forced to make the ultimate sacrifice for his people and his country.
A Child Prodigy and Zionist
Born in 1924, Eli was raised in a religious Jewish home in Alexandria. Already at a young age, he exhibited a phenomenal memory and an affinity for challenging intellectual pursuits. He excelled in school, especially in math and languages, and as a teenager he learned vast amounts of Talmud under Rabbi Dr. Moshe Ventura, the Chief Rabbi of Alexandria.
During World War II, as the Axis forces drew near, the Cohen family – like many of Alexandria’s Jews – left the city. The family returned to Alexandria after the war, in 1946, whereupon Eli enrolled in an electrical engineering program at Alexandria’s Farouk University. However, during his second year, he and other Jews were forced out of the university as a result of intensifying anti-Semitic sentiment in Egypt and throughout the Arab world.
As a boy, Eli was involved in the Hehaluts Hassair Zionist youth club, where the seeds were planted for his lifelong devotion to Jewish sovereignty in the ancient Jewish homeland. Later, he worked with the underground Zionist groups that were active in Egypt in the years before Israel’s declaration of statehood. According to some reports, Eli worked for the Haganah – the pre-state Jewish defense force – and joined the effort to clandestinely smuggle arms from Egypt to the Holy Land. It is also believed that Eli was involved, albeit indirectly, in the infamous 1954 Lavon Affair, a botched attempt by Israeli military intelligence to bomb Western installations in Egypt to ignite tensions between Egypt and Great Britain. The Egyptian authorities busted the ring of Jewish activists and made a wave of arrests, eventually executing the two primary activists. Eli, who apparently rented the apartment used by the activists for planning the attacks, was arrested but then quickly released.
In the end of 1956, following Israel’s successful battle against Egypt in the Sinai, the Egyptian government embarked on a harsh and brutal campaign against the country’s Jews, and Eli, along with scores of other Egyptian Jews, was deported to Italy. Jewish Agency representatives arranged for his immigration to Israel, and he settled in the coastal city of Bat Yam, in the home where his parents had already been living. He began working as an Arabic-Hebrew translator, and then did accounting work for an insurance office in Tel-Aviv.
The Making of a Spy
In 1960, Eli Cohen was enlisted by AMAN, the intelligence department of the Israel Defense Forces. (His services would later be transferred to the auspices of the Mossad.) Although the circumstances surrounding his recruitment are unclear, it appears that intelligence officials eyed Eli because of his fluency in Arabic, Middle Eastern features, exceptional memory, quick wit, natural charm and charisma, and ability to work unflinchingly under pressure.
Syria, Israel’s hostile northeastern neighbor, was the chosen destination for the newly recruited secret agent. From atop the Golan Heights, the Syrians terrorized Israeli farmers and communities in the planes of the Upper Galilee. In 1955, Syrian gunmen opened fire on Israeli fishermen tending to their business in Lake Kinneret, and repeatedly in the late 1950’s, Syrian artillery posts on the Golan attacked Israeli villages in the valleys down below. Facing an insurmountable topographical disadvantage, the Israeli defense establishment looked to install a spy in the upper echelons of the Syrian government to provide the information it needed to properly respond to the ongoing threat. Furthermore, Syria was the beneficiary of a consistent supply of arms from the Soviet Union, which it used to launch guerrilla raids against Israel and its southern neighbor, Jordan, with which it sought to compete for regional prominence. An Israeli spy with access to Syrian military secrets would help Israel know precisely which weapons were being prepared for use against it, so it could mobilize and prepare itself accordingly.
Eli underwent an intensive six-month training course, in which he studied Moslem religion and culture, map reading, and radio broadcasting and cryptography – the latter two being the means by which he would send encoded messages to his dispatchers in Israel. Additionally, he had to change his Arabic accent from Egyptian to Syrian. AMAN also taught Eli his new, carefully-designed identity and background. His name became Kamal Amin Taabet, and his parents’ names were Amin Taabet and Sa’ida Ibrahim. He was born in Beirut to Syrian-born parents, and his family emigrated to Alexandria when he was three years old. His parents died in 1956.
The plan was to send Eli to Argentina, where he would join the large, wealthy community of Syrian émigrés in Buenos-Aires and open a business. His story was that his uncle had moved to Argentina and opened a textile business in 1946, and a year later invited Eli – Kamal – to join him. When the textile business went bankrupt, Eli’s script read, Kamal opened his own successful import/export business, but always pined to return to the homeland, Syria.
Eli learned the language, culture, and ins-and-outs of Syrian-Argentinean trade. His training also included a thorough study of the geography and social norms of the Buenos-Aires community that he would be joining. It was critical that he would be instantly integrated into his new life in order not to arouse suspicion. The plan was for Kamal to establish ties with prominent businessmen in Syria, where he would then relocate.
Eli flew to Zurich on February 3, 1961, where he switched his documents and became Kamal Amin Taabet. He then boarded a Chile-bound flight with a transit stop in Buenos-Aires. He slipped out of the airport in Argentina without having his passport stamped, and met his control officer in the city. With lightning speed, he built his place among the Arab business elite in Buenos-Aires. During this time, Providence stepped in to ensure that the plan would succeed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Kamal befriended Amin al-Hafiz, a Syrian official temporarily living in Argentina, who would return to Syria in 1963 and lead a coup, which resulted in his becoming President. Kamal’s crafted persona as a passionate, wealthy and generous Syrian nationalist attracted the friendship and trust of al-Hafiz, whose faction of the Syrian Baath party sought to establish Syrian independence from Egypt’s efforts to dominate Arab affairs.
A Spy in Damascus
Less than a year after moving to Argentina, Eli returned to Israel to prepare for his entry into Damascus. He flew from Israel to Europe, and on January 1, 1962, he sailed from Genoa to Beirut, from where he got a ride to his apartment in Damascus with a man he had met on the ship.
Eli set up an antenna outside his study window and hid a transmitter in the window blind, through which he transmitted coded messages to Tel-Aviv. Using his contacts from his days in Argentina, who had written letters of recommendation, as well as his natural charm, social acumen and large budget from his dispatchers, Kamal established ties with prominent figures in Damascus. And, just a year after his arrival in Damascus, Amin al-Hafiz returned to Syria and became the nation’s President. His friend from Buenos-Aires, Kamal Amin Taabet, was treated as part of the President’s family. Eli Cohen thus found himself rubbing shoulders with the highest-ranking officials of the ruling party of Israel’s fierce enemy.
It is told that during a party celebrating the rise of al-Hafiz’s Baath party, Kamal was introduced to a Saudi public works contractor who was working on a facility to divert water that flowed to the Jordan River, in an effort to cripple Israel’s water supply. According to these reports, Eli Cohen had access to the precise plans and time-table of the project, and was even given a guided tour of the site. On the basis of the information provided by their man in Damascus, the IDF shelled the Syrian equipment in the area in question to thwart the project. Additionally, Syria drafted and trained commando units to carry out attacks against the “movil ha’artzi,” Israel’s main water carrier, which would leave a good deal of the country without water. Eli Cohen passed on information about the planned attacks, which the IDF successfully thwarted.
Eli’s close relationship with Amin al-Hafiz made him a sought-after confidant among Syria’s political and military establishments. Officials seeking promotions would initiate friendship with Kamal, and freely share with him information about their activities, in the hope of winning the President’s favor. Eli was thus able to provide the IDF with accurate, detailed reports about arms shipments arriving in Syria from the Soviet Union, and about the Syrian forces’ training and operations, information he gleaned from his conversations with his new “friends.” During his informal meetings with Syrian personnel, he would raise questions concerning Syria’s preparedness for an Israeli attack to learn what strategies it had devised in the advent of war. Eli was even given guided tours of Syrian military installations and fortifications in the Golan Heights, equipping the Israelis with information that proved critical in enabling it to capture the Heights in 1967. Among the more famous of Eli’s contributions was his recommendation that the Syrian forces plant eucalyptus trees for its troops on the Golan, which, he claimed, were large and dense and thus provided camouflage. When his recommendation was accepted, Eli relayed the information to the IDF, allowing it to easily identify Syrian outposts throughout the Golan Heights during the Six Day War.
A Tragic End
As the years progressed, Eli’s broadcasts to his superiors in Tel-Aviv became longer and more frequent, putting him at greater risk of exposure. In late 1964, Syrian intelligence officials stepped up their efforts to track down suspected leaks of sensitive information. Besides their suspicions of Israeli espionage, the Syrians were also fearful of internal enemies hostile to the fragile rule of the Baath party. Aided by modern Soviet technology, the Syrians discovered that Kamal Amin Taabet was working as a secret agent for the Israeli Mossad. On January 18, 1965, Syrian officials raided Eli’s apartment and caught him red-handed, in the act of sending a message to Israel.
In the ensuing months, Eli was subjected to torture and incarcerated in a Syrian prison. He stood trial before a Syrian tribunal, and was denied a legal counsel. It is told that during the trial, the judge referred to Eli and his accomplices as “traitors.” Eli stood and proudly announced, “I am not a traitor; I am an agent of the State of Israel.”
On May 8, 1965, Eli Cohen was sentenced to execution. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir led the campaign to appeal to the international community on Eli’s behalf. Numerous leaders and heads of state, including Pope Paul VI and the governments of Belgium, Canada and France, petitioned the Syrian President to have the sentence commuted. Despite the efforts, the sentence stood.
Eli Cohen was brought to a public square for his execution after midnight on May 18, 1965. Just prior to his hanging, he was granted permission to write a letter to his family, which was delivered to his mother, who kept it with her for the rest of her life. The letter read:
To My Dear Wife Nadia, and My Dear Parents,
I am writing to you these last words, a few minutes before my end, and I would
like to beg you to maintain a good relationship forever.
I request you dear Nadia to pardon me and take care of yourself and our
children. Look after them thoroughly, bring them up and give them a complete
education, don't deprive them or yourself of anything.
Please be always in close communication with my dear parents.
You can get remarried in order not to deprive the children of a father. You
have the full liberty to do so. I am begging you my dear Nadia not to spend
your time weeping about something in the past.
Concentrate on yourself, looking forward for a better future!
I am sending my last kisses to you and to the children: Sophie. Irit, and Shaoul,
also to all my family, especially to my mother, my sister, Odette and her
family, Maurice and his family, Ezra and his family, Sara and her family, Zion
and his family, Alfred (Efrayim) and his family and finally to Bero
Don't forget also your dear family; give them my best regards.
Don't forget to pray for the soul of my late father and mine.
All of you accept my last kisses and blessing.
Eli Cohen 15/5/1965
After writing the letter, Eli was allowed to meet privately for 20 minutes with Rabbi Nissim Andabu, the 90-year-old rabbi of Damascus, and together they recited the vidui (confession). The rabbi later reported that Eli’s last words before his hanging were, “Tell my wife I fully discharged my duty.”
Cohen’s remains were interred in Syria, and to this day, despite the efforts of Cohen’s widow, Nadia, and numerous prominent figures, the Syrian government has refused to return the remains to Eli’s homeland.
Eli Cohen is memorialized by a monument in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. In addition, the Eliad (“Eli Forever”) settlement on the Golan Heights is named in his memory, as are several streets in major Israeli cities. And in 2009, the municipality of Bat Yam, Eli’s hometown, announced plans to construct a museum to memorialize his remarkable story. Several books have been written about the life of Eli Cohen, including Eli Ben-Hanan’s Our Man in Damascus, and his story is the subject of the 1987 film The Impossible Spy. In 2010, Eli Cohen’s family created the website elicohen.org.il that contains a variety of materials about his extraordinary mission, in four languages.
An Unfolding Story
The full story of Eli Cohen’s life – and death – has yet to be told. Many details about his life before and during his mission in Syria remain vague and subject to debate and speculation. And every so often, new information is revealed that sheds additional light on this fascinating Israeli hero.
Just last month, a Kurdish activist from Iraq visited Israel and gave an interview to Israel Radio in which he claimed to have sat in Eli Cohen’s Syrian prison cell in 1971, six years after the spy’s execution. He recalled seeing an inscription on the wall of the cell, apparently engraved by Eli before his execution, which read, “I am not sorry for my actions. If I am sorry for anything it is for what I did not accomplish. Sometimes a man fails due to the friends who failed him.” Eli did not likely expect the people in Israel and Jews around the world to learn of this inscription and hear of his loyalty to the Jewish people that remained steadfast even after his capture. But the recent testimony of this Kurdish activist has brought Eli Cohen’s message of pride, courage and conviction to the Jewish world, putting to rest any doubts as to whether he ever regretted embarking on the wildly successful mission that would cost him his life.
In an address to the Israeli Knesset in 2007, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reflected upon the contributions of Eli Cohen to Israel’s security, and the debt of gratitude which is owed to the fallen hero, but can never be truly repaid:
“The State of Israel is indebted to Eli Cohen for the information that allowed it to foil the Syrian plot to divert the waters of the Jordan. IDF fighters who climbed onto the slopes of the Golan during the Six Day War are indebted to him for the information that made their job easier and saved innumerable lives. Israeli governments are indebted to him for their understanding of the secrets of the regime in Damascus which assisted in bringing victory. And the residents of the Galilee Panhandle are indebted to him for his help in rescuing them from many long years of living in shelters escaping the Syrians’ shelling…
This debt that we all owe is magnified tenfold by the fact that it came at the expense of the sacrifice, suffering and death of the Israeli hero, Eli Cohen…
The miraculous story of Eli Cohen is one of courage and sacrifice, but also of the tenacity and resolve that has characterized the Jewish people’s struggle for survival throughout the millennia. And for today’s Syrian Jews, he is a remarkable and fascinating figure whom destiny chose to return to his roots in Syria and make a most unusual, yet monumental, contribution to Am Yisrael.