Mossad may have tried to ‘kidnap’ spy Eli Cohen’s body from Syria 40 years ago

Recording made by legendary operative’s brother says agency managed to get the body to the Lebanese border but apparently failed; daughter says she’s unaware of such an incident

This undated photo shows Israeli spy Eli Cohen, in Syria, wearing a wristwatch recovered by the Mossad in 2018. (Prime Minister's Office)
This undated photo shows Israeli spy Eli Cohen, in Syria, wearing a wristwatch recovered by the Mossad in 2018. (Prime Minister's Office)

Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency may have tried to smuggle the body of legendary Israeli spy Eli Cohen out of Syria some 40 years ago, according to a recording made by Cohen’s brother Maurice and discovered by Channel 12 news.

In the recording reportedly made by Maurice Cohen — himself a Mossad agent — in a conversation with a historian before his death in 2006, Cohen talks about the uncertainty surrounding the burial site of his brother and an apparently unsuccessful attempt to recover the body.

Eli Cohen infiltrated the top echelons of Syria’s leadership in the early 1960s and obtained top-secret intelligence before he was caught and publicly executed in Damascus in 1965.

“There is one version that the previous president Amin al-Hafiz put (his body) in a camp surrounded by a battalion of tanks to protect it,” Maurice Cohen said in the recording, broadcast on Wednesday. “Afterwards President Assad, the late father, they say he dug a huge pit and put a gas bomb inside and then covered it in concrete.”

Mossad spy Eli Cohen, executed in Syria in 1965. (Israel GPO)

“Others say that hotheads burned the body, but I doubt that version is correct because it was such an important political bargaining chip,” he said.

According to Cohen, the reason for the secrecy in Syria was because the Mossad had already tried once to smuggle the body out of the country.

“I’m almost sure that they keep it so secret in Syria, that so few know where he is, because there was an attempt to kidnap the body,” Cohen said. “It was taken to the Lebanon-Syria border.”

He gives no further details in the recording on the attempt or why it ultimately failed. Channel 12 said the attempt occurred 40 years ago.

Eli Cohen’s daughter Sophie told Channel 12 she had never heard this report before and called on the government to release all the information it has.

The report on Cohen’s whereabouts came after weeks of speculation that Russia had found his body, a report that was denied by the Prime Minister’s Office and strongly rejected by Moscow.

Citing unconfirmed reports by Syrian opposition groups, Hebrew media reported earlier this month that a Russian delegation took Cohen’s remains out of Syria.

Israeli officials were silent after the reports emerged. Israel had previously appealed to Russia for help in finding Cohen.

Russia’s foreign ministry strongly rejected the reports, putting out a statement “resolutely refuting” the claim, which it described as a “provocation.”

It urged the Israeli media to show a more “accurate, professional and honest approach to coverage of such sensitive issues.”

Russia, which is allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad, recently aided Israel in finding and recovering the remains of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel who went missing, presumed killed in battle, in the 1982 First Lebanon War.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov at an official ceremony, April 4, 2019, at which Israel received the remains of IDF soldier Zachary Baumel’s personal effects. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Baumel’s remains were flown back to Israel earlier this month, after years of efforts to find his body. Israeli officials are still searching for two other soldiers captured and killed in the same battle: Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz.

Cohen’s body has not been returned from Syria despite decades of appeals by his family. News of the whereabouts of Cohen’s remains are closely followed in Israel, where recovering the bodies of fallen soldiers carries considerable weight.

Cohen is also a national icon representing Israel’s daring intelligence-gathering efforts: Information that he obtained in Syria is credited with playing a key role in Israel’s stunning success in the Six Day War.

Cohen was put on trial and executed by the Syrian government for espionage on May 18, 1965, after he successfully breached the Syrian government under the alias Kamel Amin Thaabet for four years.

Last year, the Mossad spy agency recovered a wristwatch belonging to Cohen and brought it back to Israel in a special operation. The Prime Minister’s Office did not explain how it retrieved the watch, which had been in “enemy hands.”

This July 5, 2018, photo shows the wristwatch that once belonged to Israeli spy Eli Cohen. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Over the years, Cohen’s widow Nadia unsuccessfully made several appeals to the Syrian government to release her late husband’s remains. In 2008, a former bureau chief of late Syrian leader Hafez Assad claimed that no one knew where Cohen was buried.

“The grave was moved after a day or two,” Monjer Motsley said in an interview. “We were scared that Israel would send forces to take away the body.

“It is difficult to find Cohen’s bones,” he added. “Assad promised to return Cohen’s bones, but when he asked about it, security officials told him: ‘Sir, we don’t know where the grave is,’ so he couldn’t promise.”

Most Popular
read more: