When people think about the hero of Israel’s incredible victory in the Six-Day War, Moshe Dayan comes to mind of most people. In the opinion of some, the real hero of Israel’s surprise victory is a spy, Eli Cohen. Even though he was executed by Syria two years before the Six-Day War, more than any one single person Eli Cohen was the hero of the June 1967 conflict.
On May 18, 1965, Eli Cohen, the Israeli intelligence who penetrated the highest levels of Syria’s political and military elite before being arrested, and convicted of espionage, was executed at Damascus’ Martyrs’ Square.
Israeli spy Eli Cohen was publicly executed by the Syrians. This execution was aired on Syrian national television. After his execution, a sign with Anti-Zionist messages was placed on his hanging body. And his body was left to hang for six hours. Cohen’s body still has not been returned to his family.
Even though it was two years before the Six-Day War, more than any one single person Eli Cohen was the hero of the June 1967 conflict.
Cohen was recruited into Israeli military intelligence in 1960. He was given a false identity as a Syrian Arab returning to Syria after living in Argentina. To establish his cover, Cohen moved to Argentina in 1961.
Early the following year, Cohen moved to Damascus. He had the foresight to embed himself with the Ba’ath party, which he believed would soon rule Syria. They took over the country via a military coup in 1963. By that time, Eli Cohen (known in Syria as Kamel Amin Tsa’abe) was entrenched within the social elites of Syria. He became a “trusted friend” of the highest-ranking members of the party while at the same time using the hidden transmitter in his home to send Israel Syria’s secrets.
Because of his high position in Syria’s social strata, in 1963, He was invited to discussions regarding Syria’s intentions to divert water from the headwaters of the Jordan River. That would have cut off an essential Israeli freshwater source. Cohen transmitted the diversion plan back to Israel the IAF effectively destroyed the Syrian plan. Note for those of you who have never been to Israel… it’s called the Jordan River…but it’s more like a creek.
Cohen’s most historic and significant achievement was setting up the Golan Heights to be conquered by Israel in the Six-Day War. The Golan Heights is a plateau that overlooks the Syria/Israel border. It allowed the Syrian military, the high ground, to send armaments into the northern Israeli villages.
Usually, non-military personnel were not allowed to visit the Syrian Golan Heights fortifications. This was a top-secret area that only senior members of the Syrian military were allowed to visit. However, Eli Cohen got a tour of the Golan Heights and a comprehensive military briefing of the strategic area and all its positions.
His most significant action was set up during the visit. Cohen put the equivalent of a target on the Syrian bunkers in the Golan Heights. He suggested to the Syrian military that eucalyptus trees should be planted around the military bunkers and mortars targeting Israel. Cohen convinced his Syrian buddies the trees would provide natural cover for the outposts (eucalyptus trees grow very quickly), preventing soldiers and personnel from suffering the effects of heat stroke. They thought it was a great idea and planted the trees. The Syrians didn’t realize it was an even more significant idea for the Israeli Air Force.
Cohen passed on the information to Israeli intelligence. During the Six-Day War, most of those Golan Heights locations were destroyed by targeting the Eucalyptus trees. The mature trees are still evident today when visiting the sites.
There is no information about how many people whose lives were saved by the information Cohen broadcast.
In January 1965, hired Soviet experts caught Eli Cohen was caught sending a radio message after large amounts of radio interference brought attention. At the time, Eli Cohen was the third in line for the Presidency of Syria. In fact, the Israeli spy had been suggested as a future Syrian president.
After a showcase trial, he was found guilty of espionage. He was publicly hanged by the very embarrassed Syria on May 18, 1965. To this day, Syria refuses to return Eli Cohen’s remains to his family for burial in Israel.
The Jerusalem Post: interviewed the radio operator who received and decoded Cohen’s messages while he was in Syria:
“I didn’t know who was sending the messages, It was, however, clear that the short messages were of extreme importance, which later helped determine Israel’s destiny ahead of the Six-Day War.”
After Eli Cohen was captured, the Syrian military transmitted the last original message to Military Intelligence headquarters in Israel.
“To [prime minister] Levi Eshkol and the handler of his spies: Kamel [Eli Cohen’s fake identity in Syria] and his friends have been staying by us for some three years. Signed by: Syrian Arab Intelligence.”
“A,” who throughout his intelligence career transmitted, received, and decoded tens of thousands of messages from Israeli spies, said Monday that he remembered receiving the final transmission. “There was great excitement and sadness,” he said. “We ran to our commander with the message, and he passed it on to Eli Cohen’s handlers, and we understood that it was over.”
Fifty-Eight years have passed since he was executed, but Eli Cohen is still considered by the defense establishment as the greatest spy in Israeli history.
Cohen operated behind enemy lines – establishing close ties with the top Syrian political and military leadership – from 1962 until he was hanged.
Cohen’s transmissions were instrumental in helping the IDF prepare for the 1967 war with Syria. He provided information about the Syrian Air Force and military positions on the Golan. Mossad chief Meir Amit said: “Eli succeeded far beyond the capabilities of most other men.”
According to “A,” Cohen used to send daily messages always at the same time of the day – 8:30 a.m. Cohen, known in MI by the number 566, wrote in encrypted French and sent his messages via a tiny radio transmitter.
With that message, Israel’s leaders knew what Eli Cohen would face.
Cohen was tortured and convicted by a military tribunal that had denied him a lawyer. Despite many appeals, including from Pope Paul VI and the governments of France, Belgium, and Canada, the Syrian government refused to commute the death sentence. Eli Cohen was executed in Martyrs’ Square, Damascus, in May 1965 before some 10,000 spectators and a TV audience.
Although the Six-Day War wouldn’t happen for another two years, Eli Cohen was one of the keys to Israel’s victory over Syria in 1967. There is no question that the intelligence that he sent was instrumental in allowing Israel to quickly and effectively defeat the Syrians and gain the Golan Heights. All they had to do was target the trees.
His actions were a big part of Israel’s overwhelming victory in the Six-Day War and capturing the Golan Heights. Syria could no longer use the high ground of the Golan as a staging ground to send rockets into northern Israel. He saved a major part of Israel’s already low drinking water, and his transmissions saved many people’s lives. He changed the face of the Middle East. After that war, the Israeli military was feared, possibly preventing other major wars.
Eli Cohen was a true hero. May his memory always be for a blessing.
Herut North America learned from Cohen’s actions. Eli Cohen gave his life to protect the inalienable rights of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. The Herut Mission Statement directs the organization to promote the inalienable rights of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.
To help fight hatred toward the Jewish nation and our eternal homeland, I joined the Zionist Herut Movement, dedicated to protecting Israel and the Jewish people worldwide. Herut is an international movement for Zionist pride and education. It is dedicated to the ideals of pre-World War II Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Jeff Dunetz (The Lid) is an active member and serves on the organization’s board. More about Herut can be found at www.HerutNA.org. Please consider joining me in this very important Zionist Movement,