Rumors circulated Sunday night that a Russian team, possibly assisted by Syrian opposition groups, had extricated the remains of venerated Israeli spy Eli Cohen, evacuating him from Syria in an Israeli coffin and preparing to return him to Israel.
The legendary “our man in Damascus,” Cohen spied on the Syrian military establishment for four years after befriending top-level Syrian officials and celebrities under the alias Kamel Amin Thaabet. After being discovered, he was tortured by the Syrians before being executed on May 18, 1965.
In Israel, his name became synonymous with self-sacrifice and heroism, the information he provided having been fundamental to Israel’s decisive victory in the Six Day War.
Israeli officials have kept silent regarding the reports, which came in just two weeks after Sgt. 1st Class Zacharia Baumel was buried on Mount Herzl, 37 years after he went missing during a battle of the First Lebanon War. Baumel was also exhumed by Russia, and his personal effects – including his tzitzit – were honored in a special ceremony in Moscow attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Since Cohen’s execution, widow Nadia Cohen has been working to bring his remains home, but to no avail. In 2008, a former bureau chief of former Syrian leader Hafez Assad said no one knew where Cohen was buried, because the grave had been relocated when officials became concerned that Israel would find it.
Last year, Nadia was presented with her late husband’s wristwatch by the Mossad intelligence agency, an article which had been retrieved in a special operation.
In March, she told Israel Radio that the late Mossad chief Meir Dagan had approached the United States for help in obtaining Cohen’s remains in 2011, during the Syrian civil war.
Eli Cohen posed as a rich Arab merchant from Argentina and developed close ties with Syrian elites, in fact nearly being named Syrian Deputy Minister of Defense.
In 1967, Eli told a Syrian officer to plant eucalyptus trees near Syrian fortifications in the Golan Heights so Israel would believe they were leisure sites for Syrian soldiers. He subsequently alerted Israel that Syrian fortifications would be demarcated with eucalyptus trees, a piece of intelligence which enabled Israel to conquer the Golan Heights in just two days.
Cohen’s radio communications with Israel were discovered by KGB operatives, and he was convicted in a hasty trial.