On May 18th, 1965, Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy who was an advisor to the Syrian Minister of Defense, was hanged in Marjeh Square in Damascus after being convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced to death.
Cohen was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1924 to parents who were Syrian natives, meaning Eli spoke the Syrian dialect of Arabic quite fluently. Although his parents and brothers left for Israel in 1949 with the end of the Israeli War of Independence, he remained in Egypt until 1956 and may have been involved with Israel in the British-inspired unsuccessful Operation Susannah, in which tiny bombs were meant to produce an Egyptian government crackdown on dissidents and inspire enough unrest to justify continued British control of the Suez Canal.
Legendary Israeli 🇮🇱 Mossad agent Eli Cohen was executed by Syria 🇸🇾 on this day in 1965. In a sign of goodwill, we respectfully ask the Syrian government to return his remains to his family 58 years later. pic.twitter.com/iGtlkyzuYJ— Avi Kaner ابراهيم אבי (@AviKaner) May 18, 2023
Because of his fluency with Arabic in a number of dialects, familiarity with Egypt, and connections to Syria, which together formed the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961, Cohen was recruited, according to Israeli records, in 1960 to become a spy for Israel.
Under the name Kamel Amin Thaabet, he moved to Buenos Aires in 1961 as an expatriate Syrian businessman and inserted himself into the thriving Syrian community in Argentina to make the connections that paved his eventual “return” to Damascus. In the Syrian capital, he befriended the social and political elite, including Amin Al-Hafiz, who became president after a military coup in March of 1963. Thaabet held fancy, alcohol-fueled parties at which he gathered information from his drunken, secular Muslim guests. Cohen supplied the information to Israel through radio transmissions, hidden letters, and even occasional secret visits home, during which he also visited his wife and three children.
We remember Eli Cohen, the heroic Israeli spy who sacrificed his life for his country and people.— RedBrasco - RedLehi (@redbrasco) May 18, 2023
He was hanged in Damascus on May 18, 1965 after infiltrating Syria's military and government. Despite his family's requests, his body has yet to be returned to Israel. pic.twitter.com/FsQeIUG6Vj
He was able to tour Syrian fortifications in the Golan Heights and presented their locations to the Israeli military, which would be crucial information for Israel during the Six-Day War. He also helped upset Syrian plans to cut off a source of the Jordan River.
Using Soviet-supplied radio-tracking equipment, Syrian forces ultimately caught him red-handed as he was transmitting to Israel on January 24, 1965, and he was arrested and tortured while expecting the death penalty for espionage. Despite a public campaign by his wife to save Cohen’s life, as well as pleas from diplomats, foreign officials, and even Pope Paul VI, Syria refused to minimize his sentence. Syria has to this day not sent his remains back to Israel, although some personal belongings such as his watch have been retrieved by his family.