Eliahu Cohen, an Egyptian-born Jew who served as a legendary Mossad spy in Syria, was publicly hanged in a Damascus square on May 18, 1965. As his limp body dangled from a post, a poster in Arabic dangled from his body. It proclaimed to a crowd of crowd of 10,000 spectators Cohen’s crime: espionage for the Israelis.
The Syrian authorities knew there was a mole within their midst, someone leaking army secrets to Israel in the lead-up to the 1967 Six Day War.
But Cohen, who went by Eli, was an unlikely culprit.
He was the son of a Syrian Jew from Aleppo, who had moved to Alexandria, Egypt, before Cohen was born, and then later to Israel in the 1950’s. Not that the Syrians knew that history—Cohen went by the Arabic name Kamel Amin Thaabet, and built up his persona as a successful Syrian businessman.
Cohen, born in 1924, grew up in Egypt in an Orthodox Jewish and Zionist home. As a young man, he tried to enter the Egyptian army in 1947, but was denied, due to questionable loyalty.
In the wake of 1948 and Nasser’s military coup in 1951, Egyptian Jews increasingly became the targets of harassment. Though Jewish families had lived in Egypt for centuries, many left in after 1948, setting off for the newly established state of Israel, or for Europe, Canada, and the United States.
Cohen, however, thought that things would get better. He wanted to finish his degree in electronics, and decided to stay, while his family moved to Israel, according to a website set up in his name.
Cohen was implicated in Zionist activities, increasingly frowned upon in Egypt. In one case, an Israeli intelligence unit operating in Egypt attempting to destroy Egyptian relationships with Western countries was discovered in 1955. Two of the group’s members were found to be guilty and were executed. Though Cohen had been involved, no link could be established. Soon thereafter, Cohen was pushed out of Egypt by the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior and moved to Israel with the help of the Jewish Agency.
He soon met Nadia Majald, an Iraqi Jewish immigrant. They married in a modest Sephardic wedding in Tel Aviv, and eventually had three children. Cohen worked various odd jobs to support his new family.
Nadia didn’t know that her husband had been recruited by the Mossad. In the decades after Israel’s establishment, the Israeli spy agency drew heavily from its Arab Jewish immigrants, knowledgeable of both the Arabic language and the cultures of the surrounding nations.
According to Community Magazine, “the circumstances surrounding his recruitment are unclear,” but “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.”
The magazine continues:
“Eli underwent an intensive six-month training course, in which he studied Muslim 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. [Mossad] also taught Eli his new, carefully-designed identity and background… He was born in Beirut to Syrian-born parents, and his family emigrated to Alexandria when he was three years old….”
“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… The plan was for Kamal to establish ties with prominent businessmen in Syria, where he would then relocate.”
Cohen moved to Syria during the Ba’ath coup, becoming a party member and telling fellow Syrians that he promised to become “a true example of the struggling Arab.”
As the Ba’ath party gained power, so did Cohen’s access to top-level Syrian officials. He was viewed as a loyal party member, and gained access to closed government sessions, the content of which he would pass on to the Mossad—via radio, letters, and occasionally, in person.
In the early 1960’s, Cohen is said to have taken photographs of Syria’s southern border, which later proved vital to Israel’s military strategy in the 1967 war. In one instance, he feigned concern for Syrian soldiers guarding the Golan Heights, and requested that trees be planted at their placements in order to provide them shade. These trees, of course, became markers for the Israelis, vertical verdant targets indicating where to shoot.
In 1964, Cohen also learned that the Syrians were planning to divert the headwaters of the Jordan, thereby cutting off Israel’s water supply. Cohen relayed the message to his brother Maurice, who was also working for the Mossad.
Later that year, Cohen secretly returned to Bat Yam, telling Nadia that he would go on his last mission. It was forebodingly accurate.
The Syrians were growing increasingly wary of spies within their midst—not only of Israelis but also of political opponents to the Ba’ath regime. Aided by Soviet technology, they listened for any “illegal” radio transmissions. In 1965, Syrian authorities raided Cohen’s home while he was relaying a message. He was caught red-handed.
What proceeded was a military trial during which Cohen was granted no legal defense. On May 8, 1965, he was proclaimed guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.
But Cohen’s case gained international ground in the media. As Community Magazine writes, “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.”
Cohen was allowed to meet with the local Damascus rabbi, where he recited viduy (confession), and to write one letter before his execution. That letter, addressed to Nadia and his parents, read:
“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… 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.”
Nadia never remarried. Instead, she has been at the forefront of a movement to have Cohen’s remains sent back to Israel for burial.
“All these years, I remained faithful to him. I want him, here and now, because I’ve reached the age that I deserve tranquility,” she told Haaretz in 2010. “I don’t want to go to my death longing for my Eli to rest in the soil of the land that he loved and for which he gave his life.”
The Syrians have repeatedly refused to return Cohen’s remains to his family. A few years ago, a senior Syrian official said that Cohen had no grave. But Nadia and her remaining family don’t believe it.
“There is a body; it’s buried somewhere secret, and at some stage, they’ll find it. I’m sure of it. Meanwhile, they torture us. The Syrians have become addicted to my pleas and my sadness,” she continued.
When Hafez Assad’s eldest son, Bashar (the current president), was born, Nadia says that she called her children and four grandchildren and had a photo of them taken together. She sent that photo, along with a warm letter of congratulations, to Hafez Assad.
“I wished that he would raise his son in joy and peace. I even asked his forgiveness for Eli’s actions,” she told Haaretz. “It didn’t move anything. They’re taking revenge on him, not letting the circle of our lives come to a close. They condemned him to the gallows and us to suffering.”
Two years later, Nadia is still waiting for her husband’s remains.
Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.