Eli Cohen, in full Eliahu ben Shaoul Cohen, also called Kamal Amin Thaabet, (born 1924, Alexandria, Egypt—died May 18, 1965, Damascus, Syria), Egyptian-born Israeli spy who infiltrated the highest ranks of the Syrian military and government by posing as a Syrian businessman. Between 1961 and 1965 Cohen passed Syrian secrets to the Israeli government in what is remembered as one of the most daring and productive intelligence-gathering operations in Israeli history.
Cohen grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, the son of Syrian Jewish parents. His fluency in Arabic, English, and French made him an attractive recruit for Israeli intelligence. He traveled to Israel for a brief espionage training course in 1955 and returned to Egypt the following year. Cohen, however, was expelled from Egypt along with other Zionist Jews in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, and he settled in Israel in 1957. He worked as a translator and an accountant before once again being recruited by Israeli intelligence in 1960.
After completing further training, Cohen was sent in 1961 to Buenos Aires, where he posed as an expatriate Syrian businessman. Using the alias Kamal Amin Thaabet, Cohen made numerous contacts in the Syrian expatriate community in Argentina and soon gained the trust of senior officials working in the Syrian embassy there. Those included the Syrian military attaché, Amin al-Hafez, who would later serve as president of Syria. Cohen made his desire to “return” to Syria well known to his new associates, and, when he moved to Damascus in 1962, his Syrian contacts helped him access the highest circles of power in Syria. He soon began to transmit information about Syrian military plans back to Israel.
Cohen’s espionage work took on even greater importance when a Baʿthist junta that included several of his associates from Argentina seized power in Syria in 1963. The coup’s leader, Amin al-Hafez, continued to favor Cohen, and he reportedly considered appointing him deputy minister of defense. Cohen received classified military briefings and was taken on tours of the Syrian fortifications in the Golan Heights.
One of the most famous stories of Cohen’s work as a spy in Syria was his suggestion to have the Syrian military plant Eucalyptus trees near their bunkers on the Golan Heights in order to protect their soldiers from the sun, thus allowing Israeli air force pilots to more easily locate the Syrian targets. The Israeli jets just looked for the trees and they knew there was a Syrian bunker nearby.
Despite Cohen’s considerable talent for espionage, he displayed a tendency for carelessness, ignoring his Israeli handlers’ warnings against sending radio transmissions too frequently or always at the same time of day. That proved to be his downfall. In January 1965 Syrian counterintelligence identified his radio signal and apprehended him in the act of sending a transmission. Cohen was interrogated, convicted in a military trial, tortured and publicly hanged in May 1965.
The intelligence that he had gathered would prove to be crucial in Israel’s victory over Syria in the Six Day War.