There’s nothing funny about the tragic way Eli Cohen’s life ended. Shortly after returning to Israel to see the birth of his third child, he was caught in the act of transmitting intelligence by radio from his apartment. He was then hanged in May, 1965. His life as a spy put him at constant risk of discovery and execution. But before he was caught, Cohen changed the game for the IDF in the Middle East. He did it by convincing Syria its troops were too hot.
For four years, Eli Cohen sent valuable intelligence to Israel, either via radio from his Syrian apartment, by letter, or in person on flights to Israel routed through European capitals. Considered a master spy, the Egyptian-born Jewish agent who came to Syria as a businessman from Argentina became the chief advisor to Syria’s Defense Minister in that short time.
In Syria, Cohen was Kamel Amin Thaabet, a successful businessman who held fantastic parties (which often turned into orgies) and let his high-ranking Syrian military friends use his apartment for trysts with their mistresses. Had he not been caught, he might even have been considered to fill a post as a Deputy Minister of Defense.
One of his greatest achievements as an advisor came on a trip to the Golan Heights. He convinced the Syrian military that the troops were too hot and tired. He told them the soldiers would benefit from the shade of trees, a welcome respite from the oppressive Syrian sun. In doing so, he had the trees planted at specific locations — locations used as targeting markers for the Israeli Defense Forces.
Cohen also made extensive notes and took photos of all the Syrian defensive positions and sent them back to his handlers in Tel Aviv.
Sadly, Syria’s military intelligence apparatus was onto a mole in the Syrian military and was on the lookout for spies. Cohen was caught while radioing to Tel Aviv during a Syrian radio blackout. He was tried and executed and his remains were never returned to Israel.
But his work lived on. In 1967, two years after Cohen was hanged, Israel launched a massive pre-emptive strike on Egypt, capturing the Gaza Strip and destroying Egypt’s air forces on the ground. Egyptian leader Gemal Abdel Nasser convinced Syria and Jordan to join the fight against Israel. When Syria did, Israel pounced on the Golan Heights using the information (and the trees) provided by Eli Cohen.
They captured the Golan Heights in two days and have held it ever since.