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The unknown, incredible life of Eli Cohen

Eli Cohen's wristwatch (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Eli Cohen’s wristwatch (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

It’s a pity that the story of Eli Cohen is not more widely known, but is that the fate of a spy? Can a life lived in secret ever fully see the light of day?

Eli Cohen’s life reads like a John le Carré novel. Cohen, born in Egypt, became a “Syrian businessman” who successfully infiltrated the top echelon of Syria’s diplomatic class, providing extensive intelligence to Israel. He became chief advisor to the Minister of Defense, and some claim that Cohen — going by the name of  Kamel Amin Tabet — was even being vetted to take on the role himself. Remember, this was before the Six Day War, when Israel was bordered to north by an openly hostile enemy state with no buffer in the form of the Golan Heights. Indeed, Cohen’s intelligence is credited with helping Israel win the Six Day War.

But before that happened, Cohen was uncovered. Again, it reads like a spy novel. Cohen sensed he may be found out. The Syrians were suspicious of a high level mole, and Cohen wanted out before they discovered it was him. Israel asked him to return for one more mission — which proved to be Cohen’s undoing. Syrian security forces uncovered Cohen and he was sentenced to death by public hanging, which took place on May 18, 1965 in Damascus’ Marjeh Square. His family has been fighting for years for the release of his remains, but Syria refuses.

Yet last week the family finally received a relic of Cohen’s: his wristwatch. TPS reported that the wristwatch, which was retrieved by the Mossad, was presented to Cohen’s family by Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen (story in this week’s IJN). The wristwatch is currently on display at Mossad headquarters until Rosh Hashanah, when it will be returned to the family.

There’s some kind of momentum growing around Cohen’s story. Earlier this year, there were rumors of a Netflix series on Cohen, with Sacha Baron Cohen cast to play the spy. The series will be penned by Gideon Raff, who wrote “Hatufim,” the series which “Homeland” was based on.

Could it be that the story of this incredible person who truly made the ultimate sacrifice will finally be known?

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