Eli Cohen was an Israeli spy who operated an undercover mission in Syria, between 1961 and 1965. An Israeli intelligence agency deployed him to develop close relationships with Syrian political and military officials. He was also assigned to extract classified information that later led to the success of the Six-Day War. In the process, Eli became the chief advisor to the Syrian defense minister. A great patriot of Egypt, Eli was eventually uncovered, convicted under pre-war martial law, and hanged publicly in Damascus in 1965. He was married to an Iraqi Jewish woman named Nadia. They had three children. Eli has been portrayed on the screen twice, more recently in a 'Netflix' series.
Childhood & Early Life
Eli was born Eliyahu Ben-Shaul Cohen, on December 26, 1924, in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt, into a staunch Jewish and Zionist family. He had three brothers. Two of them were Abraham and Maurice.
Eli studied at a local Jewish community school and then attended the 'University of Alexandria' to study electrical engineering. He organized several protest campaigns against the British rule.
In January 1947, he was enlisted in the Egyptian army as an alternative to paying the mandatory sum that all young Jews had to pay. However, Eli's loyalty was scrutinized, and he faced harassment by the 'Muslim Brotherhood.' He then left the university and continued his studies at home.
Following Israel's independence in 1949, when Jewish families were leaving Egypt, Eli stayed back to finish his electronics degree. In 1951, he was arrested and interrogated over his Jewish and Zionist activities that he was carrying out under the tutelage of Alexandria's chief “rabbi.” He had also participated in various Israeli furtive operations in the country during the 1950s.
In 1954, Egyptian authorities arrested Eli for being a terror suspect. He escaped punishment due to lack of evidence. In December 1956, the ‘Jewish Agency’ assisted Eli to deport to Israel in a vessel.
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In 1957, Eli joined the ‘Israel Defense Forces’ as a counterintelligence analyst and later applied for the Israeli intelligence agency 'Mossad,' which rejected him. Offended, he resigned from military counterintelligence and took up a clerical job in a Tel Aviv insurance office.
Eli was, however, taken in by 'Mossad' when Director-General Meir Amit was in search of a special agent to infiltrate the Syrian government. After weeks of surveillance, he was finalized and was put to training.
In 1961, Eli was sent to Buenos Aires in the guise of a Syrian textile businessman. He then moved to Damascus in February 1962, under his new identity, “Kamel Amin Thaabet,” to extract classified information from Syrian military officers.
From 1961 to 1965, Eli transmitted crucial intelligence data, including that of the Golan Heights, to the Israeli army. This helped the army win the Six-Day War and capture the Golan Heights.
Eli found out about Syria's secret plan to attack the Israeli defense forces. Thus, he wished to terminate his assignment in Syria. The newly appointed Syrian intelligence colonel, Ahmed Su'edani, disliked Eli. Out of fear of being caught, Eli expressed his wish to visit Israel in November 1964, to pass on information and also witness the birth of his third child.
Eli was, however, persuaded continuously by Israeli intelligence agencies to return to Syria. He ultimately complied. In January 1965, Syrian security services broke into Eli's apartment, where he was caught while he was escaping to Israel. He was sentenced to death.
Eli was brutally tortured and interrogated before he was publicly hanged on May 18, 1965, at the ‘Marjeh Square’ in Damascus. His last wish was to see a “rabbi.” Hence, Nissim Andabo, the elderly chief rabbi of Syria accompanied him to ‘Marjeh Square.’
In November 1965, Eli's wife wrote to Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, requesting him to send Eli’s remains back to Israel. She has pleaded for years and is still waiting to receive Eli's body. Syria has not even disclosed the location of Eli's grave.
In February 2007, a Turkish official assured assistance to Eli's family to get back his body. In August 2008, Assad's former bureau chief, Monthir Maosily, revealed that Eli had been buried thrice and that Israel would never receive his body.
On September 20, 2016, an unknown Syrian group named 'Syrian Art Treasures' posted a 'Facebook' video showing Eli's body after his execution. On July 5, 2018, media channels announced that Eli’s wristwatch had been retrieved from Syria, which was later given back to Eli's family by 'Mossad' in a ceremony. The watch is now on display at the 'Mossad' headquarters.
On April 15, 2019, a few Israeli news agencies published unconfirmed reports of Eli's remains being recovered in Syria and stated that the remains were with a Russian delegation.
Family & Personal Life
Eli married Iraqi Jewish Nadia Majald, sister of Hebrew author Sami Michael, in 1959. They had three children, Sophie, Irit, and Shai. His family is now settled in Bat Yam.
Eli has been honored as an Israeli national hero, and many streets and neighborhoods have been named after him. A memorial stone has been erected in the 'Garden of the Missing Soldiers' in Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, to commemorate him.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur, Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann, and many ‘Mossad’ officials attended Eli's son's “bar mitzvah” in 1977.
The TV film 'The Impossible Spy' (1987) chronicled Eli's life. The film featured John Shea as Eli. The 2019 'Netflix' miniseries 'The Spy' had actor Sacha Baron Cohen portraying Eli.