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Israel says intercepted message brought down spy Cohen in 1965


Reproduction of an Israeli stamp being issued to honour the Mossad intelligence agency spy Eli Cohen who was hanged in Damascus in 1965./File Photo

Israel sought to lay to rest on Monday a decades-old debate about one of its most famous spies, Eli Cohen, saying his capture and execution in Syria was due to successful counter-intelligence rather than unprofessionalism.

Cohen, a Jewish immigrant to Israel from Egypt, was recruited by Mossad and dispatched under cover to Damascus, where he operated from 1961 to 1965.

Before his arrest, he managed to pass on information that Israel says proved vital to the defeat of Syrian forces in the 1967 Middle East war. His story was the subject of a 2019 Netflix dramatisation.

Inaugurating a museum to Cohen’s memory in the coastal city of Herzliya, Mossad director David Barnea said a recent investigation had concluded that the spy was caught “only because his transmissions were intercepted by the enemy. Simply intercepted and traced”.

“This is now an intelligence fact,” Barnea said, according to a transcript of the event, dismissing theories that Cohen had tipped off the Syrians by sending too many messages, perhaps under pressure from his handlers, or strayed from instructions.

Among the exhibits in the new museum is Cohen’s last cable – sent on the day of his capture in January 1965 – reporting a meeting of the Syrian high command. Convicted of espionage, Cohen was hanged in Damascus later that year.

Syria, still at war with Israel, has refused to repatriate Cohen’s body.