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Post Eli Cohen, Israeli Spy Extraordinaire
Created by John Eipper on 09/30/18 4:41 AM

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Eli Cohen, Israeli Spy Extraordinaire (Edward Jajko, USA, 09/30/18 4:41 am)

Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich's post of 9/28 on Israeli control of the Golan Heights--Jawlaan in Arabic--calls to mind the short but brilliantly successful career of the Israeli spy Eliyahu Ben Sha'ul Kohen, better known here as Eli Cohen.

He was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1924. His father had emigrated from Aleppo, Syria. His parents and he were ardent Zionists and Eli--Iilyaa in Arabic--was frequently in trouble with the Egyptian authorities. He emigrated to Israel in 1957 via Italy. There he entered the IDF and its military intelligence section (one of my first assistants in the Yale University Library was a Israeli whose fluency in Arabic allowed him to do his military service in Intelligence). Cohen volunteered for Mossad but was rejected and later resigned from the IDF and became some sort of clerk in civilian life. He married and he and his wife had three children. (By the way, it should be noted that at this point Cohen has mastered modern Israeli Hebrew; has modern standard Arabic, which he learned with an Egyptian pronunciation but is probably able to use with the pronunciation and vocabulary of a Levantine; speaks Egyptian colloquial Arabic, possibly with a distinctive Alexandrine accent, and has undoubtedly become fluent in Palestinian colloquial, and likely learned Syrian and Halabi colloquial from his father; and probably more.)

Cohen was recruited into Mossad as a deep cover agent. After intense but brief training, he was given a new identity as an Argentine Syrian, Kamil Amin Thabit--a name that wavers between being identifiable as Muslim or Christian--and sent to Argentina to spend some time there and then to "repatriate" himself to Damascus. Presumably by then he also had Argentine Spanish.

In Syria, Cohen/Thabit began working his way into the upper levels of the state. With a seemingly endless budget, he held lavish parties at which women were made available to the high-ranking men. He himself had more than a dozen lovers. As a result of his efforts, he was invited by his military friends to accompany them on inspections of Syrian defenses. Probably the most notable of these were his tours of the Golan Heights. I remember reading in one source many years ago that Cohen memorized the positions and weaponry of the Syrian emplacements, then later reported the information to Israel via his clandestine radio.

I have also read that on one of his visits to the Golan Heights, Cohen noted that Syrian soldiers in open emplacements were suffering from the sun and heat and suggested some sort of shade for them--trees, perhaps. A Syrian military commander agreed and trees were planted at the various open positions. In the 1067 [that would be 1967; see below--JE] war, those trees were used by Israeli forces to target Syrian guns.

Supposedly, Cohen worked his way high enough in politico-military Syria that he was on a track to be named deputy minister of defense. There was at least one in the Syrian military who didn't like or trust him. He got the government to secretly order total radio silence, then with the help of Russian equipment and advisors--hmmm--a single radio sound was detected and zeroed in on. Soldiers stormed Cohen's apartment. He was arrested, tried, and hanged in Marjah Square of Damascus.

This ended Cohen's brief career, 1961-1965. But the intelligence he supplied was crucial to the Israeli conquest of Golan two years later, in the June 1967 war.

There is a website sponsored by his family, elicohen.org. This and English-language materials I read long ago are adulatory, almost hagiographic. I have not looked into the Hebrew or Arabic materials.

I can understand why Israel wanted to take and hold Golan. This posting is supportive of that just academically. But I can't help but admire this espionage operation.

I recall that, many years ago, I had a paperback book about this matter, possibly Our Man in Damascus; I forget the title. Cohen was able to write to his wife before his execution, and the author of the book included a page or two of one of those Arabic letters (she was an Iraqi Jew). I recall reading what the reproduced photo of the letter allowed me to, and among other things, it said ‘I'm sorry I got into this.'

JE comments:  Fascinating, Ed.  I'm surprised the Syrians didn't try a simpler counterespionage tactic:  find a trusted Argentine to check out Cohen's bona fides.

Speaking of Israeli intelligence in Argentina, who in WAISworld has seen the new film about capturing Adolf Eichmann, Operation Finale?  I did earlier this month.  The film isn't blessed with the most compelling script, but the interaction between Eichmann and his captor is worth the admission price.  It's also intriguing that after playing the good guys in Gandhi and Schindler's List, Ben Kingsley could embrace a role of such consummate evil.

(Gandhi came out 36 years ago.  Kingsley has had quite a career.)

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  • The Six-Day War was in WHAT Year? (David Duggan, USA 09/30/18 3:11 PM)
    Until reading Ed Jajko's post of September 30th, I didn't know that the Israeli-Arab conflict was one year after the Norman conquest...

    JE comments: I'll be darned, it does say 1067--nine centuries off. To Ed Jajko's credit, his scholarship focuses primarily on the ancient and medieval worlds.  So what is my excuse?

    Nobody keeps WAIS more honest than David Duggan!  (I've made a note in the original post.)

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    • 1067, 1967, 1387, 5737: What's In a Date? (Edward Jajko, USA 10/02/18 4:23 AM)
      In response to David Duggan (September 30th), my post does say 1067 (and all that), the reason being that it went through numerous drafts, at least one of which included typographical errors. I seem to have neglected to save a corrected, near final version, and this frail and aging iPhone, reflecting its aging--aged?--owner, deleted the good version, perhaps out of spite or political disagreement. Or since I type on it with one finger, perhaps out of a misperception of insult.

      I caught the error in dating too late. There are other infelicities in the text. As for the year, I concede to David Duggan. But in belated self-defense, let me say that instead of (June) 1967, I might have said "the waning days of the month of Safar and the first days of Rabi' al-Awwal, 1387 A.H.," or "the waning days of Iyyar and first days of Sivan, 5737," of the Jewish calendar. If I could find my book on calendars, I might be able to supply the Coptic year as well. Egyptian newspapers used to have the date of the current issue in all three systems, and perhaps still do. The Wikipedia article "Arabic names of calendar months" shows the possibilities for generating confusion and error. And there's an entirely different calendrical system and year in Iran.

      But the fault in my message lies not in these problems but in me. Mea culpa.

      JE comments:  Edward Jajko's erudition is matched only by his modesty.  As for WAIS, many a splendid discussion has been spawned by a typo.  How is it that the four years mentioned here all end in 7?

      Ed--you compose your virtuoso WAIS posts on an iPhone?  You're from Silicon Valley and all that, but where do you find the stamina?  If I don't have a full (and real, with buttons that "give") keyboard at my disposal, I limit my communications to LOLs, cat photos, and the occasional smiley-face.

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  • Eli Cohen, Israeli Spy Extraordinaire: YouTube Sources (Luciano Dondero, Italy 10/01/18 5:07 AM)
    Very nice post from Edward Jajko (September 30th).

    On YouTube I found two films about Israeli spy Eli Cohen. One is a shorter documentary thing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6LVU3yKzAk ), the other is a longer and dramatized version, while faithful to the known sources (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQ9cUmvkgmg ).

    JE comments:  Thank you, Luciano!  The first film is 28 minutes in length, and has a 1970s vibe to it.  I plan to watch.  A thought:  if Cohen was executed in 1965, wouldn't (shouldn't?) the Syrians have moved their Golan Heights artillery emplacements prior to the war against Israel?  Cohen, after all, was the guy who suggested they plant trees to give the gunners some shade.  They had two years to accomplish this.

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