SUMMER 2019 The Summer of Torah, Hesed, and Charity

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By: Dave Gordon

Kamal Amin Ta’abet, a Lebanese national, was the diplomat equivalent of a rock star. Well-known, well-liked, suave and savvy, he gained the trust of the “who’s who” among
high-ranking Syrian officials and their elite compatriots, including George Saif, one of the brassat the Ministry of Information.

Kamal broke into the inner circle through his lavish parties, shrewdness, affable personality, and reputation for being a colorfully entertaining entrepreneur with deep pockets.

Of course, this was all a façade.

Kamal Amin Ta’abet was actually Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who brilliantly masqueraded his way into the upper echelons of the Syrian government. An Egyptian-born Jew trained to speak a perfect Syrian-Arabic, Cohen passed vitally important state secrets from Egypt, Argentina and Syria back home to Israel, helping the young Jewish State survive despite the vicious hostility of her neighbors.

Saving the Water

The early 1960s was an especially turbulent time in the Middle East, as resentment towards Israel boiled over following the sting of the Arabs’ defeat, and loss of land, in two wars. Like in most Arab states, anti-Semitism was a source of pride for Syria, determined to destroying the Jewish State by any means necessary. Regular arms shipments from the Soviet Unionprepared Syria for what it had hoped would be the war that would once and for all rid the world of the State of Israel.

As the Arab states sought to mobilize for a military campaign against Israel, Syria simultaneously concocted a plan to inflict maximum suffering without firing a single bullet. An insidious and secret plot was being hatched to divert the Jordan River, thereby starving Israel of water. By 1963, just as the Ba’ath Party took power, this plan was in full swing. Corralling hydraulic engineersand machinery, Syria and neighboring Arab states collaborated to create a grave water crisis for Israel, threatening its citizenry.

Cohen was tipped off about the scheme by two “friends” – high ranking army officers, Colonels Hatoum and Dali. He somehow got his hands on engineering blueprints, maps and diagrams, and passed the information along to Israel. With each piece of the puzzle, with each new update, he’d apprise his home country of precisely where and what was being schemed. This was, of course, adelicate operation, utilizing various forms of intelligence gathering and transmission in order not to arouse suspicion. These included clandestine radio transmissions, coded letters, and even sneaking away to Israel from time to time when he decided he needed to transfer information in person. Danger lurked at every turn.

By 1964, a long line of sophisticated trenches had already been dug, forming a long channel to divert precious water that was heading for Israel into Jordanian territory. There was no “rewind button” – as soon as the last piece of earth was moved, the water would flow with little to stop it. Armed with Cohen’s dossier, which disclosed all the information, the Israeli Air Force flew over Syrian airspace to bomb machinery, bulldozers and other equipment.

With Gd’s help, the Jewish State was fortunate to have a man on the inside, Eli Cohen, who saved the country from horrifying drought.

If Eli Cohen had been sent only to save Israel from this plot – dayenu(it would have been enough). But there was much more work for him to do.

Golan Heights Strategy

Until the spring of 1967, the Syrians controlled the strategic Golan Heights region, which overlooks much of Northern Israel. Eli learned that the Syrians were planning to reinforce their artillery and military fortifications in the Golan, in the area abutting Israel’s border. The drums of war were already beating.

These were highly classified plans, known only to a select few officials at the very top of the government hierarchy. Cohen had built relationships with those very senior individuals, who freely discussed these operations with him. They even guided him on the southernmost frontier zone, where they took photographs of each other overlooking Israel. All the while, Cohen was taking notes, pictures, and sketches of military positions. He noted virtually every Syrian gun, troop, trench, and tank on the Golan Heights. He also learned of the Syrians’ plan to build bunkers and artillery three in a row, rather than the single line that Israel would have anticipated.

In a brilliant chess move, Cohen advised the Syrian officials that a prolonged stay on the bare area of the Golan Heights might cause the Syrian infantryman sunstroke, and he suggested planting eucalyptus trees at crucial positions to provide shade. Another advantage of the trees would be to deceive the Israelis, who would not expect artillery near the trees.

Of course, the precise opposite occurred. Israel’s eyes and ears in Syria secretly passed on this information, and several yearslater, during the Six day War of 1967, the Israeli Defense Forces knew exactly where the enemy forces were resting. This was one of the critical pieces of information that enabled Israel to capture the Golan Heights in about 48 hours, with few casualties.

Eli Cohen’s crack spy work was a major factor in Israel’s dazzling victory that permanently established its status as a regional power.

A Tragic End

Eli’s extraordinary success may have led to his tragic downfall.

After returning to Syria following his final visit to Israel in late 1964, his behavior changed. Some believe that he became reckless or sloppy in his transmissions to Israel, calling several times a day, almost always at the same time (8:30am), and for longer periods of time. Perhaps out of arrogance, a sense of invincibility, or an underestimation of Syrian intelligence, no one knows – it seems that he was no longer as careful as he ought to have been.

The increasing number of secret plans that appeared to have been leaked set off red flags tothe Syrians, and their Soviet allies were ready to help hunt down the mole.

The Russians dispatched surveillance teams, armed with
top-of-the-line intelligence devices to track down suspicious radio signals. They followed the transmission wave to Damascus, leading them straight to the source. While Eli Cohen was at home radioing to his handlers in Israel, Syrian police stormed in and arrested him. His cover was blown. The first month of 1965 was the last month Eli Cohen was a spy. His capture was led by the head of Syrian Intelligence, Colonel Ahmed Su’edani, who was known to have distrusted and disliked Cohen.

Reports say that despite being tortured during barbaric interrogations, Cohen fearlessly stood his ground, refusing to divulge any secret information to the Syrians. After a show trial, with what was likely a foregone conclusion, he was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death.

Just as Cohen saved Israel, Israel did its utmost to return the favor, calling upon the international community to persuade the Syrians not to execute Eli Cohen. Golda Meir, Israeli Foreign Minister at the time who later became Prime Minister, made every attempt to rally global allies, and even reached out to the Soviet Union to explain how Syria’s image on the worldstage would suffer if Cohen were executed.

Amazingly, foreign leaders, heads of state, and diplomats worldwide – including from France, Belgium, and Canada – lobbied to commute Cohen’s death sentence. Even Pope Paul IV made attempts to intervene.

But the Syrians would not relent, and scheduled the execution for May 18, 1965, or 16 Iyar, 5725. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the very day when, some 1,900 years earlier, the Romans broke through the walls of Jerusalem, just before ransacking the city. It also happened to be the date of the liberation of the Dachau death camp in 1945.

The day he was to be hanged, Cohen placed a special request with the prison officials to meet with Rabbi Nissim Andabo, the Chief Rabbi of Syria. Surprisingly, his requestwas granted, and the rabbi was allowed to escort Cohen to Damascus’ Marjeh Square, where Cohen was executed.

Eli (Eliyahu Ben-Shaul) Cohen, 41, was left hanging in the public square for six hours.

A True Hero

Cohen is credited with saving countless Jewish lives, risking and then sacrificing his own life for the sake of his beloved nation and his beloved state. And he did it all right under the noses of the Syrians, using his smarts, charisma and likeability to charm the Syrian upper echelon.

The late MeirAmit, one of Israel’s top intelligence figures, once remarked that Cohen “succeeded far beyond the capabilities of most other men.”

He will forever be remembered as a hero and a proud Jew to whom we all owe an enormous debt of gratitude.