A report in Arabic media on Thursday claimed that Israel and Syria are very close to making a deal that will result in the return of the remains of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who was publicly hanged in Damascus in May 1965.
The story first appeared in English in Israel National News, which quoted Al-Jarida, an Arabic news service based in Kuwait. Al Jarida cited anonymous sources as saying that the Israeli government has received information identifying the precise location of Cohen’s final resting place and the location of his personal belongings.
According to the report, negotiations have been going on for some time between Israel and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, mediated by the Russian government. These negotiations resulted in the recent recovery of Cohen’s watch by the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service.
Al Jarida wrote that the bones would be DNA tested before a full transfer to Israel. Al Jarida stated that the price demanded by Syria for the return of Cohen’s remains was unknown but the news service speculated that it would likely concern the deployment of Syrian forces along the 1974 ceasefire lines.
Al Jarida also reported that Cohen’s family was played a recording of his final words before being executed.
The article also made mention of Israel’s unsuccessful efforts to negotiate with Hamas for the return of the remains of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, two IDF soldiers killed in Gaza in 2014. Hamas typically demands the release of hundreds of security prisoners in exchange for IDF soldiers or their remains.
Eliyahu “Eli” Cohen was an Egyptian Jew who, at the age of 35, moved to Israel in 1957 and was soon recruited by the Mossad. In 1962 he arrived in Damascus where he succeeded in developing close relations with high-ranking officials in the Syrian military and government. His success as a spy was extraordinary and the intelligence he provided considered essential to Israel’s swift success in the 1967 Six-Day War. In one instance, he told his friends in the Syrian military that he felt sympathy for the soldiers stationed in the hot Golan Heights and requested to plant trees to provide shade over the military outposts – an offer that was gladly accepted. During the war, the IDF utilized the trees to mark the outposts as targets.
In January 1965, Cohen was caught while transmitting messages to Israel. After his execution, his widow, Nadia, commenced a campaign to have his remains returned to Israel – where he is still to this day considered a national hero.