Eli Cohen was born in Egypt in 1928 to Jewish parents who had immigrated to Alexandria from Aleppo, Syria. In 1949, shortly after the State of Israel was established, Cohen’s parents and brothers moved to Israel. 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.
After the 1956 Suez War, it became dangerous for Cohen to remain in Egypt, in December, 1956, he made his way to Israel by way of Naples.
In 1957, Cohen was recruited by the Israel Defense Forces, and was placed in military intelligence, where he became a counterintelligence analyst. His work bored him, and he attempted to join the Mossad. Cohen was offended when Mossad rejected him, and resigned from military counterintelligence. For the next two years, he worked as a filing clerk in a Tel Aviv insurance office, and married Nadia Majald, an Iraqi-Jewish immigrant, in 1959. They had three children, Sophie, Irit and Shai, and the family eventually settled in Bat Yam.
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. By the time Cohen was recruited in late 1960, he had three children. He needed the extra income, and he was drawn to danger, so he agreed.
The Mossad recruited Cohen after Director-General Meir Amit, looking for a special agent to infiltrate the Syrian government, came across his name while looking through the agency’s files of rejected candidates. For two weeks he was put under surveillance, and was judged suitable for recruitment and training. Cohen was then informed that the Mossad had decided to recruit him, and underwent an intensive six-month course at the Mossad training school. He was then given a false identity as a Syrian businessman who was returning to the country after living in Argentina. To establish his cover, Cohen moved to Argentina in 1961.
Cohen provided an incredible amount of intelligence data to the Israeli Army over a period of four years (1961–1965). Cohen sent intelligence to Israel by radio, secret letters, and occasionally in person – he secretly traveled to Israel three times. His most famous achievement was the tour of the Golan Heights in which he collected intelligence on the Syrian fortifications there. Feigning sympathy for the soldiers exposed to the sun, Cohen had trees planted at every position. The trees were used as targeting markers by the Israeli military during the Six-Day War and enabled Israel to capture the Golan Heights in two days with relative ease. Cohen made repeated visits to the southern frontier zone, providing photographs and sketches of Syrian positions. Cohen learned of an important secret plan by Syria to create three successive lines of bunkers and mortars; the Israel Defense Forces would otherwise have expected to encounter only a single line.
In January 1965, Syrian efforts to find a high-level mole were stepped up. Using Soviet-made tracking equipment and assisted by hired Soviet experts, a period of radio silence was observed, and it was hoped that any illegal transmissions could be identified. After large amounts of radio interference were detected and traced to their source, on 24 January Syrian security officers broke into Cohen’s apartment where he was caught in the middle of transmission to Israel.
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.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.
“Eliahu ben Shaoul Cohen, worked as a Mossad agent in Damascus, Syria under the alias of Kamal Amin Ta’abet from 1962 until his exposure and execution on May 18, 1965. Cohen was able to supply considerable details on Syrian political and military matters because of his strong interpersonal skills and abilities to build close ties with business, military, and Ba’ath Party leaders, and Syrian President Amin el Hafiz. He was hanged in Martyr’s Square with the television cameras rolling for the entire world to see.
Eli was privy to secrets of the Syrian elite including those of national security. Eli was considered to be named the Syrian Deputy Minister of Defense. He was the only civilian to receive private tours of military installations, even being photographed in the then Syrian controlled Golan Heights with high ranking Syrian officials looking over into Israel.
As a result Eli sent highly informative reports back to Israel detailing the Syrian water deviation project and each and every one of the outposts on the Golan, including tank traps designed to impede any Israeli attack.
Eli’s influence on Syrian officials helped Israel beyond measure. Eli suggested that the Syrians plant trees on the Golan near each of their fortifications. Based on the eucalyptus trees, Israel knew exactly where the Syrian fortifications were.
Two years after his death, in June 1967, the intelligence Eli Cohen provided enabled Israel to capture the Golan Heights in two days as part of Israel’s victory in the Six Days War.
Eli Cohen was the greatest Mossad agent Israel has ever known. He was greatly admired by all, including the Syrians. His deeds fed and are still feeding the imagination and fantasy of many. He is a hero who sacrificed his life for the sake of Israel, his fellow Jews, his children and his family.” [http://www.elicohen.org]
Maurice Cohen, (Eli Cohen’s brother) worked for Mossad on a special project in the 1960’s. At first Maurice was not aware who was sending the messages that he was decoding. As time went on, Maurice began to suspect that the messages were being sent by his brother Eli. Maurice’s incredible story appears in the http://www.elicohen.org website.
The movie below (in English) is based on Eli Cohen’s real-life story