WITH his fingernails ripped out and his body bloodied and raw after hours of brutal torture, a crowd of 10,000 men cheered as Eli Cohen stepped into his noose.
His execution marked the end of the life of the world’s greatest spy, who was known for having 17 lovers and getting into the pockets of the rich and powerful by organising orgies with beautiful women.
Now Eli Cohen’s astonishing real life James Bond story is the basis of the new Netflix miniseries The Spy, starring Sacha Baron Cohen.
Eli Cohen, born in 1924, was raised in a devout Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt.
Although most of his loved ones left Egypt in 1949 to live in the newly independent Israel, Cohen stayed behind and began helping an undercover Jewish sabotage group.
A staunch Zionist, he helped smuggle thousands of Jews out of Egypt in the covert Operation Goshen as antisemitism flared in the country.
He went on to help a secret Israeli intelligence unit operating in Egypt and in 1956 he went to Israel where he tried to join Mossad — the elite Israeli intelligence service.
But they rejected him and, disappointed, Cohen went about a quiet life as a filing clerk in a Tel Aviv insurance company.
He had three kids with his wife Nadia, but unbeknown to Cohen, Mossad was watching him — not because they suspected him, but because they were sizing him up for the most important mission of his life.
They recruited him and told him his mission was to infiltrate the most influential circles of society in Syria, befriending politicians and military officers, and reporting back to Israel with top secret intelligence.
Cohen was picked because he could speak English, Arabic and French and looked Syrian in appearance.
He was immediately sent on an intensive James Bond-style course of weapons training, high-speed evasive driving techniques, along with radio transmissions and code-making.
Cohen’s cover story was that he was Kamel Amin Thaabet, an extremely successful Syrian businessman who was moving back to his native land after living in Argentina.
When he got to Damascus in 1962, he quickly established himself as a flashy social butterfly who enjoyed the company of women and fine wine at swanky dinner parties, and he was generous with his huge riches.
His method was to invite Syrian military bigwigs to the debauched gatherings and soberly listen to their loose talk as they got drunk — he only pretended to get intoxicated with them.
The handsome spy also developed a reputation as the most eligible bachelor in Damascus and was said to have had 17 beautiful mistresses during his time undercover.
Cohen’s flat would even become famous for hosting orgies for some of the most powerful people in Syria.
With his powerful connections, Cohen talked his way into being given a tour of the top secret Golan Heights — one of the most important Syrian military sites on the border with Israel.
During the tour, Cohen suggested to an army officer that they should plant eucalyptus trees in key places to give troops shade and hide military fortifications from the Israelis.
The officer thought it was a great idea and readily agreed — but after he shared intelligence with his bosses, the trees ended up being used years later by the Israelis as shooting targets to kill countless Syrian soldiers in the Six-Day War – a violent clash between Israel and Arab forces in 1967.
Yet Cohen became so trusted in his role that at one point he was even in the running to become Syria’s Deputy Defence Minister.
But he was getting worried about his cover, and on a secret trip back to Israel in 1964, he asked to leave Syria for good to return to being with his family and newborn child.
But the intelligence he’d been sending Mossad was just too valuable and they ordered him to go back one last time.
Cohen promised Nadia this would be the last time he’d go away.
WHAT WAS THE SIX-DAY WAR?
The Six-Day War was a violent clash between Israel and Arab forces from Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
On June 5 1967, Israel launched a surprise air strike on Egyptian airfields.
There’s still debate if the strike was a justified preemptive attack after recent tensions between Egypt, or an unjustified act of aggression.
After destroying nearly all of the Egyptian air force in the attack, the Israelis also launched a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip and the Sinai, catching Egypt off guard again.
The Israelis also took the heavily defended Golan Heights of Syria in just two days – thanks in part to Eli Cohen’s intelligence reports.
And they also took the West Bank and Arab sector of East Jerusalem, which was under the rule of Jordan.
By the end of the bloodshed, Israel as a country had doubled in size.
Israel wiped out the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordinian militaries in the conflict, killing over 20,000 troops but only losing 1,000 of their own.
A ceasefire was signed on June 11.
Syrians were becoming suspicious about how so much secret intelligence was getting in to Israel’s hands, so they decided to smoke out any spies in their country.
They called in the help of elite Russian agents who brought specialist radio equipment to the Middle East.
Spooks from the KGB — the feared security service of the Soviet Union — were able to pinpoint a secret broadcast being made inside Damascus.
And the signal was coming from Cohen’s luxurious home.
When armed men kicked in his door to arrest him, they astonishingly found the deeply trusted Cohen in the middle of making a secret code transmission.
He was completely defenceless and was immediately hauled off to be interrogated — where he was subjected to excruciating torture techniques.
His fingernails were reportedly pulled off — but the stalwart spy refused to give up information about his homeland.
Humiliated and hanged by the neck
Cohen was subjected to a show trial without any kind of legal defence and sentenced to death for his crimes against Syria.
A huge campaign was launched by the international community to spare him — even Pope Paul VI tried to prevent the hanging.
Before his execution, Cohen wrote a heartbreaking letter to his wife saying: “You can get remarried in order not to deprive the children of a father. You have the full liberty to do so.
“I am begging you my dear Nadia not to spend your time in weeping about some thing already passed.
“Concentrate on yourself, looking forward for a better future!”
Syrians ignored all the pleas to spare Cohen and on 18 May 1965, Cohen was hanged from a wooden scaffold in Marjeh Square in Damascus.
The event was broadcast on Syrian television and music was specially commissioned for the occasion, which was widely celebrated in Syria.
After he was dead, authorities placed a parchment bag on his body scrawled with anti-Zionist messages and was left to hang for six hours before being buried.
Cohen’s body was left hanging from the scaffold for six hours in a bag before being buried.
ELI COHEN'S LAST WORDS TO HIS WIFE
Before he was executed, Cohen sent this heartbreaking message to his wife, Nadia:
To My Dear Wife Nadia, and My Dear Parent,
I am writing to you these last worlds, a few minutes before my end, and I would like to beg you to be in a good relationship forever.
I request you dear Nadia to pardon me and take care of yourself and our children. Look after them thoroughly, bring them up and give them a complete education, don’t deprive them or yourself of any thing.
Please be always in close communication with my dear parent.
You can get remarried in order not to deprive the children of a father. You have the full liberty to do so.
I am begging you my dear Nadia not to spend your time in weeping about some thing already passed.
Concentrate on yourself, looking forward for a better future!
I am sending my last kisses to you and to the children: Sophie, Irit, and Shaoul, also to all my family, especially to my mother, my sister, Odette and her family, Maurice and his family, Ezra and his family, Sara and her family, Zion and his family, Alfred (Efrayim) and his family and at the end to Bero (Abraham).
Don’t forget also your dear family; give them my best regards.
Don’t forget to pray for the soul of my late Father and of mine.
Receive all of you my last kisses and blessing.
Today, Cohen is considered the greatest spy in Israeli history and a diplomatic battle for his remains has raged ever since his execution.
Streets are named after him in Israel and his son’s 1977 Bar Mitzvah was attended by the then Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin.
MOST READ IN NEWS
Cohen is so revered in fact that last year Mossad carried out a special operation just to find and return Cohen’s wristwatch to his family.
Sofi Ben-Dor, Cohen’s daughter, told YNet News: “There was great excitement, because it’s the only item of dad that came back, we have nothing else besides that.”
It’s now on display in Mossad’s headquarters.
The Spy is available on Netflix now
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