Espionage for the Land of Milk and Honey: Eli Cohen
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Whenever I visit the beautiful Golan Heights in Northern Israel, I can’t help but think of Israel’s most revered spy, Eli Cohen.
Eli was born in Alexandria, Egypt. His parents were Syrian Jews from the once great town of Aleppo. The same Aleppo that has been torn to shreds by the Syrian civil war.
He was raised as a Zionist. When Israel became a nation most of his family made Aliyah, moved to Israel, but Eli stayed behind and worked on behalf of Israel in Egypt. In 1956 he was arrested by Egyptian authorities and eventually deported along with the rest of the Alexandrian Jews in Egypt.
He started a new life in Israel at the age of 29 in 1957. He assumed that because if his background, Israel would want to train him as a spy but he was rebuffed by the Mossad. Despite scoring high on all the tests: IQ, bravery, amazing memory—there was concern that he had a bit of a hero complex and could put himself and maybe others in danger.
However, the Mossad never forgot Eli Cohen. About a year after he married Nadia, they remembered the Egyptian Jew who had so much potential and truth be told, the Syrian border was heating up. They desperately needed intelligence. And here was an Arabic speaking Jew who could blend right in.
Finally, the man who would become his mentor, approached him. He went through rigorous training but the most important part was to learn to speak Arabic with a Syrian accent. He would be of no use speaking with his Egyptian dialect and accent. It would be like someone from New York blending in in Alabama.
Eli Cohen became Kamal Amin Ta’abet. The Mossad created a complete life story for “Kamal” complete with photo albums full of family pictures—no small task, decades before Photoshop. Eli was first going to Argentina, where he would blend into the Syrian community there. His wife knew he was working for the government, but she had no idea he was a spy.
Everyone loved “Kamal” in Buenos Aires. It wasn’t long before he befriended a Colonel Afez Al Assad, who would one day become the Syrian President. They become close friends. Everyone believed that Eli was a wealthy importer/exporter. Once he was established in the Syrian community he announced that he was going to back to the homeland—returning to Syria.
Eli used the cash provided to him to buy favors. Many high level Syrians wanted to help Eli as they knew they would benefit from his success—“Kamal” would see to that. Eli often had parties where drunk officials would speak freely about government issues. Eli, would only pretend to be intoxicated as he carefully documented the government secrets.
Syria had a plan to divert precious water coming down the Golan heights away from the Sea of Galilee. He befriended two colonels who knew of the project. He provided this information to Israeli intelligence who promptly blew it up.
He was so trusted that they took him to the Golan Heights—then in Syrian hands. The Syrians would bomb Israel from the Golan Heights, terrorizing our northern residents. Eli was allowed to take pictures and transmitted to Israel the exact location “positioning of every Syrian gun, trench, and machine-gun nest in each Golan Heights fortification; tank traps, designed to impede any Israeli attack, were also identified and memorized for future targeting.” He actually convinced the Syrians to plant trees at a certain installation so the Israelis wouldn’t see it. Of course, it was those trees that enabled the Israelis to hit their target. At one point his name was considered for defense minister!
By now, Eli’s wife had figured out what he was doing. He told his wife that he had one last mission and then he would quit. However, it was during that mission that his radio frequency was picked up. A sweep of his building led the Syrians right to him in the middle of transmitting information.
He was caught and tortured. The Syrians were extremely embarrassed that an Israeli spy had become best friends who so many government officials. Despite months of international public pressure to release him, the Syrians decided to execute him by hanging. And now you know why he is considered our greatest spy.