The Spy Who Helped Win the Six-Day War
The Fellowship | May 18, 2018
Lived: December 26, 1924 – May 18, 1965
Why you should know him: An Israeli spy whose work in Syria led to his 1965 execution, Eli Cohen was instrumental in Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Born to a Jewish family in Alexandria, Eli Cohen enlisted in the Egyptian army in 1947, as the alternative was that young Jews had to pay Egypt a sum of money. Cohen was kicked out of the Egyptian military, however, as his loyalty was questioned. He was also unable to study at the university because of harassment by the Muslim Brotherhood.
After Israel won her independence, the Cohen family joined other Jews in making aliyah (immigrating) in 1949. Eli remained in Egypt, however, to continue studying electronics and to coordinate Zionist activities in the predominantly Muslim country. It was in Egypt, after a 1951 military coup, that Cohen was arrested for his Zionist actions.
The arrest did not stop him. Throughout the 1950s, Cohen took part in Israeli operations in Egypt to smuggle Egyptian Jews into the Jewish state. Cohen’s involvement in these covert missions, called Operation Goshen, were never proven by the Egyptian authorities.
After the Suez Crisis, Cohen made aliyah himself in December 1956. Once in Israel he was recruited by the IDF and became a counterintelligence analyst.
After marrying in 1959 – Eli and Nadia would have three children and settle in Bat Yam – Cohen was recruited by the Mossad.
Cohen trained for six months with the Mossad, becoming a katsa, or field agent. His false identity as a Syrian businessman required him to move to Argentina in 1961 to establish his cover story.
The next year, Cohen moved to Dascus, where he built relations with Syrian politicians, military officials, and diplomats. He also kept up an active social life, listening to political gossip in cafes and at parties thrown at his home.
For four years, Cohen collected invaluable intelligence for the IDF, sending information to Israel by radio, secret letters, and even three secret visits.
Cohen’s most famous mission was a tour of the Golan Heights, which were then entirely held by Syria. Pretending to help Syrian soldiers who were succumbing to the heat of the sun, Cohen had trees planted at particular locations. These trees were then used by the IDF as targeting markers during the Six-Day War, helping Israel capture the Golan Heights in only two days. Cohen also took photos and drew sketches of Syrian military positions, and learned of Syria’s plan to create three lines of defense (the IDF only expected one). All of this intelligence would later help Israel prove victorious.
On Cohen’s last secret visit to Israel – to attend the birth of his third child – he asked to terminate his espionage, as Syria’s new head of intelligence distrusted him. But Israel asked their spy to return to Syria once more.
In January 1965, Syria used Soviet equipment and Soviet experts to trace Cohen’s secret radio transmissions to Israel. He was caught in his apartment, and after being interrogated and tortured – and despite an international campaign led by Golda Meir – was ultimately hanged in public in Damascus on May 18, 1965.
Three days before his execution, this man who helped secure Israel’s future wrote this final message to his beloved wife: “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!”