“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or discouraged because of the king of Assyria and the vast army with him, for there is a greater power with us than with him. With him is only the arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God to help us and to fight our battles.” (2 Chronicles 32:7–8)
In 1965, Kamel Amin Tsa’abet was third in line to the presidency of Syria when he was publicly hanged on charges of spying for Israel—his legal name on the nation’s lips: Eliahu Cohen.
While climbing the ranks in Syria’s government to become chief adviser to the minister of defense, Eli Cohen strategically positioned Israel to win the 1967 Six Day War.
Before his capture in January 1965, this daring spy learned of and conveyed many military secrets that saved Israeli lives.
His work in 1964, for example, foiled a plan to divert the Jordan River’s headwaters, which would have cut off Israel’s water supply.
If the campaign had succeeded, the results would have been devastating for Israelis who depend on the Jordan.
Eli also uncovered Syria’s intention to use three successive lines of mortars and bunkers against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), rather than one. As well, he conveyed to Israel the locations of secret gun emplacements overlooking Israel on the Golan Heights.
He even conveyed the identity of every new Soviet weapon Syria received and key information about Syrian Air Force missions against Israel.
Eli’s influence in Syria and intelligence helped Israel easily identify military targets during the Six Day War. In the early 1960s, he advised Syria to plant trees at military outposts in the Golan Heights to shade Syria’s sentries from the sun, which made them easy targets in the war.
A Jewish Man Is Mistaken as a Syrian Muslim
Eli’s rise to power in Syria was aided by the fact that his father was from Aleppo, Syria. Because of that, Eli bore an Arabic accent identifiable with Syria’s largest city, although he wasn’t born there.
His father had moved to Egypt before Eli was born in 1924, and the future Mossad spy had grown up hearing firsthand about the streets of Aleppo, which carried well into his cover.
Enlisted in 1961 by AMAN (Agaf Ha-Modi’in), the intelligence branch of the Israel Defense Forces, and planted in Argentina, Eli adopted the guise of Kamel Amin Tsa’abet, a wealthy Arab businessman who touted nationalistic loyalty to Syria. As Tsa’abet, he portrayed himself as a man who longed to return to his homeland.
In the previous year or two, Syria had seen several military coups overturn the political balance, which had cast the socialist Ba’ath Party into power.
At lavish gatherings he hosted for the local Syrians, Tsa’abet established his Ba’athist allegiance.
According to Eliahu’s brother Maurice, he made “it clear to anyone who would listen that what he really desired was to be back in Syria, contributing to the growth of its government and working toward the destruction of Israel.” (JewishMag)
As Tsa’abet, Eli kept his sights on Syria. He did not stray from this purpose even when he gained the trust of Syrian businessmen who knew the location of the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann or after meeting a senior Eichmann aide who took part in the mass murder of Jews before joining Syria’s secret service.
With help from his connections in Argentina, Tsa’abet made his way to Damascus, where he met “some of the most influential men in the highest echelons of government,” Maurice said.
The Cohen Brothers Rise in the Ranks
As Eli made inroads into Syria, his brother Maurice was simultaneously climbing the ranks of the Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel.
At that time, Maurice had no knowledge of his brother’s role in Israeli intelligence.
Meanwhile, the power of Syria’s Ba’ath Party coincided with Tsa’abet’s increasing access to top-level Syrian officials. (Community Magazine)
Similar to how Joseph gained favor in his early days in Egypt, Eliahu Cohen became the only civilian that received admission to highly secure military sites in the Golan Heights, earning great responsibility and the favor of Syria’s top men.
“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,” Community Magazine states.
Meanwhile, the Cohen family, including Nadia, Eli’s wife since 1959, thought Eli to be based in Europe, traveling for a newly acquired job with the Israeli government, which required him to purchase electronics and spare computer parts that were off limits to Israelis.
Nadia Cohen Learns of Her Husband’s Secret Life
“Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles.” (Psalm 25:22)
By the time of Eli’s final mission in 1965, Nadia Cohen, an Iraqi Jewish immigrant who lived in Bat Yam, had mothered three babies.
Not knowing about his double life until his capture, Nadia would see on television, alongside the larger Cohen family, Eli’s publicized execution in May 1965.
In August of 2016, 80-year old Nadia reacted to Syria’s republication of the post-execution video, which caused an emotional stir here in Israel. She told Times of Israel,
“There were tears and a sadness to see [the post-execution video] right in front of you, how he’s lowered from the rope into the coffin, to see the vehicles there, to see the masses in the square, and all of it accompanied with loud music [and] happiness, it’s not simple,” she said, never having seen it before.
Nadia added that she hoped “someone would stand up and tell us where Eli is buried, and bring him back. Let there be one patriot who will discover where the body is and give us peace and comfort.”
In 2014, Nadia told Arutz Sheva,
“I know the intelligence agencies tried and appointed people to act on it for the future, but over the years they have given up,” then 78-year-old Nadia said. “I wish with all my heart to see him and talk to him (at his grave) as if he was alive, but in light of the results and the failures I do not think it will happen.”
In 2010, Nadia told Haaretz that by Eli’s final mission “the light had gone out of his eyes.”
“He felt burned out and he refused to return. We were at home; we lived in Bat Yam, with three babies. Our youngest, Shai, was 21-days-old. Eli was with the babies, running after them; and his handlers were running after him, begging him to go back,” Nadia said.
Although Eli desired to terminate his assignment in Syria, Israel asked him to return one more time. He promised his wife it would be his last trip.
Eli’s children Sophie, Irit, and Shai share their mother’s grief and wish to have their father’s body returned, according to public statements over the years. Thirteen years after his execution, during Shai’s Bar Mitzvah, his son gave this moving tribute to his father:
“I would like to have been like all other children. I would have liked my father to be a simple man and not a hero. Then he would be alive today and I would have a father who lived with us like all the other fathers,” Shai said, as recorded by Yossi Katz in A Voice Called: Stories of Jewish Heroism. “I will do my duty with all my strength and devotion for the Nation of Israel. I will be a faithful son of an admired hero. I will try to be like you, Father. That is my pledge.”
The Impossible Spy
“May He send you help from the sanctuary and grant you support from Zion. May He remember all your sacrifices and accept your burnt offerings. May He give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.” (Psalm 20:2–4)
Actor John Shea, who performed as Eli Cohen in the 1987 film The Impossible Spy, talked about the struggle Cohen faced in navigating his double life and over-identifying with his “character.”
“He would come back and visit his wife every once and a while, and the times that he came back were always very difficult times,” Shea said in the movie’s trailer. “He started to lose some of his original self, and the lines between the persona in the mask that he created and his original self became really, really blurred.”
“Imagine playing a role 24 hours a day for 6 months at a time—all right?—when your life is at stake. You’d have to become so good at playing that role that you would have to forget about your original self; because if you let your original self show for one second, you’re dead,” the actor explained.
Despite Eli’s complete immersion in his role, Maurice, who passed away in 2006, did learn of his brother’s secret, having decoded messages from his brother to the Mossad that held clues that Maurice understood as relevant to Eli’s home life.
“I kept this secret deep in my heart, unable to share it with anyone, especially my family. I knew the top security importance. I realized the brave stance my brother Eli took to defend his country, while placing himself in mortal danger,” Maurice said.
“This knowledge tore at my heart and put me in a terrible dilemma. Should I cause Eli’s essential mission to be halted and save his life so he could return to his family, but be considered a traitor by my people and country? Or should I disregard the information I had, and put Eli’s safety into God’s hands, and let him complete his sacred mission to save our holy land from destruction by a crazed and vicious enemy? I had no choice,” he explained. “After a long deliberation, I knew I had to take the second, painful option.” (Eli Cohen)
Maurice was not the only person to discover Eli’s secret.
While Tsa’abet traveled through high-security areas in Syria, taking photos of strategic strongholds on the Golan Heights, intelligence that gave Israel an advantage in the Six Day War, officials in the Syrian government had begun to suspect a high-level spy.
In January 1965, Syria put into place Russian-made technology and hired Soviet experts to track illegal radio transmissions issued during an intentional period of radio silence.
The Impossible Spy depicts Eli sacrificing normal precautions to warn Israel about an attack against an Israeli kibbutz that night.
His fateful transmission on January 24, 1965 was pinpointed by security officers who then conducted a pre-dawn raid on his home.
Eli was arrested, interrogated, and tortured. His trial before a military tribunal went forward unhindered by an international campaign to save Cohen from the death penalty. That campaign was led by then Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir.
The Sting of Death
“I will deliver this people from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?” (Hosea 13:14)
Eli’s brother Maurice found himself tormented by his brother’s death.
“I indict myself anew on a daily basis. What else might I have done? How might I have saved my brother from such unfathomable suffering?” the late Maurice Cohen wrote. “Could I have protected my mother and my sister-in-law, my nieces and nephew, my brothers and sisters, from such pain? As my own judge and jury, I find myself both guilty and innocent. The verdict tortures me.”
“But in the end, it was Eli alone who could have broken the chain of events that took his life. He chose on his own, without the luxury of discussion with his wife or friends or family, to give himself to his work. He heeded a higher power; a greater good,” Maurice continued.
“When God commanded Moses to send spies into Israel to chart the land and study the people who were living there, He wrote Eli’s fate. Each day of my life, I remind myself that nothing I could have said or done had the power to change that,” he said.
Eli Cohen: A Beloved Hero
“When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.” (Psalm 27:2–3)
Eli Cohen’s commitment to the greater good of Israel has made him a legend. In the hearts of the nation, he is beloved.
While Cohen’s grave yet lies empty, the eucalyptus trees he had planted on the Golan Heights continue to grow.
His sacrifice also has been immortalized in film and text, including Eli Ben-Hanan’s 1972 English account Our Man in Damascus.
In a final letter to his wife before his execution, Cohen wrote: “I request you dear Nadia to pardon me and take care of yourself and our children…. I am begging you my dear Nadia not to spend your time in weeping about some thing already passed. Concentrate on yourself, looking forward for a better future!“
Years later, Dawood Baghestani, a former Syrian prisoner and current editor-in-chief of the English-language Israel-Kurd magazine who had been housed in Eli’s cell during the 1970s, found a message believed to have been carved into the wall by Cohen before his death.
Baghestani met with Nadia Cohen and Eli’s younger brother Avraham as recently as October 2011 to share in person the legendary spy’s parting message, which seems to indicate that he was betrayed by a close friend, but also that he had a sense of peace:
“I don’t regret what I have done, only what I could have done and didn’t have the chance to do. Sometimes close friends fail those who can act,” Eli wrote on his prison cell wall. (YNet)
“Know that the Lord has set apart His faithful servant for Himself; the Lord hears when I call to Him. … Offer the sacrifices of the righteous and trust in the Lord.” (Psalm 4:3, 5)