Widow of spy Eli Cohen casts doubts on report Russians searching for his remains

Nadia Cohen says she has received no new information despite report on Arabic website that Russian soldiers in Syria have been looking intensively for his burial site

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)

The widow of executed Israeli spy Eli Cohen on Sunday cast doubt on a report that Russian soldiers are searching for his remains in Syria.

“This isn’t confirmation that is what will really happen,” Nadia Cohen said Sunday in an interview with Channel 13 news. “I’m happy that Eli is mentioned on television, mentioned by high-ranking officials.”

Cohen’s comments come after a report in the Ray Al-Youm Arabic news website that said that in recent days Russian soldiers in Syria had stepped up efforts to find the remains of the spy.

The report said the soldiers had been exhuming graves in the Yarmouk refugee camp cemetery and searching caves around Damascus, following “unremitting pressure” from Israel.

President Reuven Rivlin and Nadia Cohen, at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Mossad super spy Eli Cohen, May 18, 2015. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Cohen said there was “hope” in the report, but that she hasn’t received any update from the Israeli government.

“This was not at the top of their minds for decades,” she said, referring to Israeli leaders. “There is joy and there is sorrow and there is fear and I wonder, why only now?”

Channel 13’s military analyst Alon Ben-David speculated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would love to accomplish this before Israel’s elections on March 23.

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.

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

The report came shortly after 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 RT television network included the clip as part of a documentary released last month, entitled “Spyfall,” that explored espionage in Syria at the time.

In the few seconds of black and white movie, a man that the network said was probably Mossad agent Cohen is seen striding along a street in the Syrian capital near the Syrian Air Force headquarters in the government quarter, not far from Cohen’s apartment.

The footage was reportedly filmed by Boris Lukin, a signals specialist who had been sent to Syria as the Russian military attaché. It was not clear if he intended to film Cohen or captured him by chance.

The RT documentary was released as Moscow was mediating the release of an Israeli woman who crossed into Syria earlier in the month.

The woman was returned to Israel 10 days ago via a swap deal brokered by Russia, two weeks after she crossed the border into Syria. Details of the affair, including the woman’s name and pictures of her, have been censored by the military. She is said to be a 25-year-old from Modiin Illit who speaks fluent Arabic.

Israel released two Syrian shepherds captured on the Israeli side of the border, and reduced the sentence of a security prisoner of Syrian nationality, in what was widely seen as an exchange deal. Israel said it made the moves as a goodwill gesture.

A foreign report said that Israeli also agreed to buy $1 million worth of Russian vaccines for Syria as part of the deal.

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 in the 1982 First Lebanon War.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an official Russian Defense Ministry ceremony, April 4, 2019, at which he receives the remains of IDF soldier Zachary Baumel’s personal effects. Also present: Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. After the ceremony, the Israeli flag that had been placed on the casket containing the effects was folded by the honor guard and given to the prime minister. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Baumel’s remains were flown back to Israel in 2019, 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.

In 2018, the Mossad spy agency recovered a wristwatch belonging to Cohen and brought it back to Israel in a special operation. The PMO did not explain how it retrieved the watch, which had been in “enemy hands.”

Over the years, Nadia Cohen had 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.”

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