An object believed to have belonged to legendary Israeli spy Eli Cohen was recently transferred to Israel after being found in Syria, according to a television report Tuesday that claimed a “dramatic development” was made in the search for the executed agent.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed to the i24NEWS channel that searches were underway for Cohen’s body, but would not comment on the belonging thought to have been Cohen’s.
“That is correct, but that’s all I can say,” Netanyahu said in a clip from the interview, referring to the searches.
His office later denied the news about Cohen’s item, calling it, “false,” though he did not reject that detail when interviewed by the network.
Quoting an unnamed Syrian government source, the Israeli network said the item could be a document or an article of Cohen’s clothing and that it was handed over to Israel by Russia, which is searching for the spy’s body in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.
The item is being examined for further evidence, the report added, without elaborating.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) March 9, 2021
The Syrian source quoted in the report also said Syria and Russia, which backs the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war, were at odds over what to demand from Israel in return for information on Cohen’s remains.
In the interview, Netanyahu stressed that he is committed to returning all Israeli fallen soldiers and MIAs being held abroad. He touted his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, which he credited for the latest development in the search for Cohen.
Cohen’s family would not comment to the network on the report, which came ahead of the March 23 Knesset elections. His daughter said in a separate interview the family was not informed by Netanyahu about the searches, and criticized the premier for announcing it through the media.
“They didn’t speak to us. I have no idea if this is only political spin ahead of the [March 23] elections,” Sophie Ben-Dor told Channel 13 news.
Russia also assisted in finding and recovering the remains of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel, who went missing in the 1982 First Lebanon War and whose body was returned to Israel in April 2019. That development similarly took place shortly before general elections in Israel.
In an interview last week, Cohen’s widow cast doubt on a report that Russian soldiers in Syria were searching for his remains.
Nadia Cohen said there was “hope” in the report on the Ray Al-Youm Arabic news site, but that she had not received any update from the Israeli government.
“This was not at the top of their minds for decades,” she told Channel 13, referring to Israeli leaders. “There is joy and there is sorrow and there is fear and I wonder, why only now?”
The network’s military analyst Alon Ben-David speculated that Netanyahu would love to accomplish this before the upcoming elections.
The report came shortly after the Russian state media broadcast what it said was previously unseen footage of Cohen in Damascus during the 1960s, when he was active as an Israeli agent. The footage was released while Moscow was mediating the release of an Israeli woman who crossed into Syria last month, and who was returned to Israel as part of a reported exchange deal.
Cohen infiltrated the top levels of Syria’s political leadership in the years before the 1967 Six Day War, and information he obtained is credited with playing a key role in Israel’s stunning success in that war.
He 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.
Cohen’s body has not been returned from Syria, despite decades of appeals by his family. Israel has asked for Russia’s help in that effort, so far to no avail.
In 2018, 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 had retrieved the watch, which had been in “enemy hands.”
Over the years, Nadia Cohen made several unsuccessful 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.”