• Tereza Krautová

Israel is Searching for the Remains of Israeli Spy Eli Cohen

In an interview with i24News, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that Israel is trying to find and repatriate the remains of the executed Mossad spy Eli Cohen. His story was a model for a miniseries on Netflix called „The Spy“.



Eli Cohen in Syria, wearing a watch later recovered by the Mossad. (Photo: israeled.org)

Israeli spy Eliyahu Ben-Shaul Cohen (1924-1965) is known for his work in Syria during the 1960s, where he managed to establish close contacts with the highest political and military elites under the false identity of Kamal Amin Sabet, an alleged Arab businessman. He befriended the president and generals, and the obtained information was sent to Tel Aviv. The information he gathered played a significant role in Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War against the coalition of Syria, Egypt and Jordan in June 1967.


Syrian counterintelligence uncovered the spy in 1965. As he was living in the diplomatic district, his transmitter was disrupting the radio correspondence of some embassies. But he made some mistakes while in Syria. He used the transmitter too often, he did not change frequencies, he broadcasted at the same time all the time and its transmissions were sometimes disproportionately long. For those reasons, Cohen was easily targeted. Counterintelligence agents secretly broke into his apartment and found several incriminating objects. Cohen was then arrested, interrogated, and tortured. During interrogations, the Syrians found out that Cohen does not remember the first surah of the Quran. The Spy realized he had lost. At the age of forty, he was sentenced to death.


The Israeli government had offered to release all imprisoned Syrians for a change in the verdict, but that was not met with success. Pope Paul VI also intervened, but was unsuccessful. Even the governments of France, Belgium and Canada tried – also in vain. The execution was broadcast live on Syrian television. Cohen’s body, covered in a cloth with anti-Zionist inscriptions, hung on the Marjeh Square in Damascus for about six hours, then soldiers took him to an unknown location.


Since then, Cohen’s remains have been somewhere in Syria; Damascus has so far refused to release them, and the Israelis have failed to exchange the remains for anything or anyone. The Israelis at least built a symbolic tombstone for Cohen in the department of missing soldiers at the national cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. In August 2008, the head of the office of the President of Syria Hafez al-Assad stated, that when the Syrian president ordered the security chiefs to pick up Cohen’s body, they told him that they have no idea where his grave might be. He also said that after the execution, everyone feared that Mossad would try to find his body, so they buried him at least three time at different places. Of course, it is not certain whether these words are true.


The only success so far was the acquisition of Cohen’s personal watch in 2018, which was brought to the country by Mossad in a „special operation“. In 2019, an interesting offer was made by the son of former Syrian president Khalid Hafiz, who wanted a million dollars for the information on where the spy’s body is buried. However, the Israeli government assessed the offer as unreliable and therefore rejected it.


But now there is a new hope that Israel will get the remains of this national hero back.


The Times reports that Syria is preparing for Cohen’s exhumation. The Russians are now also allegedly involved in the negotiations. Cooperation with Russia was confirmed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an interview with i24News and added that he is determined to repatriate all the fallen soldiers of his country. For the past few weeks, the government has been digging at the cemetery in the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk, searching for the agent’s body. This was stated by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). According to the chief of SOHR Rami Abdar Rahman, Russian forces took samples of the exhumed remains to perform DNA tests and verify the identity of the bodies. However, an unnamed representative of the Palestinian faction, who is living in Damascus, said, that it is certain that the body is not in the camp and it had been transported to a safe place.


Earlier this month, Russian news agency RT released never-before-seen footage of Eli Cohen walking down the street of Damascus. These shots appeared in the documentary named „Spyfall“, that explores espionage in Syria during the 1960s. The footage was filmed by signals specialist Boris Lurkin, who had been sent to Syria as the Russian military attaché. It is unknown if Lurkin knew it was Cohen, or if it was a coincidence.


Eli Kohen and his wife Nadia pictured in the 1960s. (Photo: Jewishnews.timesofisrael.com)

Cohen’s still living wife Nadia Cohen would like to have her husband’s body back and she even tried several times by writing letters to the Syrian presidents. These days Nadia wonders, why the return of her husband’s remains is a priority for Israeli politicians right now. In an interview with Channel 13 news, she said: „There is joy and there is sorrow and there is fear and I wonder, why only now? “. Military analyst Alon Ben-David speculates that it may have something to do with the upcoming elections. Prime Minister Netanyahu would probably like to accomplish this before the upcoming parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for 23 March.

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