This one may not rate up there with some of the other coups that Mossad has pulled off, like the incredible stealing of Iran’s nuclear files, but the retrieval of a wristwatch that was owned by Eli Cohen is important because of the symbolism of what it means more than the watch itself.
Cohen was an Israeli spy who was initially rejected by Mossad. Born in Alexandria, Egypt to devout Zionist Jews, he eventually was forced to leave Egypt and settled in Israel in 1957. He was recruited by Mossad in 1961 and using a cover identity of a Syrian businessman by the name of Kamal Amin Taabet, he furnished the Israelis with a wealth of incredible intelligence, befriending some of the top Syrian government and military leaders.
He would host parties and act intoxicated although he was always sober and he’d ply the Syrian military officers with liquor to loosen their tongues.
He spent time living in Argentina working on his cover story and there were even rumors that he, as a rich businessman with a wealth of contacts in the government was being considered as the Deputy Defense Minister for Syria. He was known only as 566 in the Intelligence HQs. He wrote in encrypted French and used a tiny radio transmitter.
He got a tour of the Syrian Golan Heights defenses and made notes of everything he saw. Included in this was that the Syrians had constructed three lines of defense where the Israelis believed there was only one. In a brilliant move, under the guise of feeling badly for the troops sitting in open bunkers in the heat, he arranged to have trees planted, giving the troops some shade and relief from the heat. The IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) made note of where the trees were and their artillery pinpointed them in the 1967 war.
After four years of working undercover, he was caught as he was transmitting a message to Israel and was arrested in January 1965. The Syrians were aware of a mole inside their government. Cohen had returned to Israel in late December 1964 to be there for the birth of his son and tried to convince his bosses to let him remain. But he returned for one final go at it, unaware that the Syrians had brought in Soviet radio direction finding equipment. They shut down all traffic and picked up his signal and they tracked it to his house.
He was arrested and tortured and put on trial where he was convicted. His wife and others pleaded for clemency but to no avail.
Four months later, he was executed in a public hanging. The Syrians moved his body’s location several times to prevent the Israelis from stealing it and bringing it home to his family. Now they claim that they don’t even know where it is buried.
The Mossad released a statement on the recovery of Cohen’s watch stating:
“After Eli Cohen’s execution on May 18, 1965, the wristwatch was held by an enemy state. Upon the watch’s return to Israel, special research and intelligence operations were carried out which culminated in the unequivocal determination that this was indeed Eli Cohen’s watch,” the Mossad said.
Even after more than 50 years, the Mossad didn’t forget their man and tracked down the watch and the location and learned that it was for sale. They infiltrated into Syria and were able to purchase the watch and bring it home.
Cohen’s widow Nadia spoke about the recovery of his watch, “a few months ago, the Mossad shared with us that they had tracked down the watch, which was on sale. We don’t know where, in what place, in what country. And of course, the Mossad bought it and carried out all of the tests to make sure it was the right watch.”
“I decided the watch would remain in the Mossad. I felt like it was part of his body, that some of his skin and some of his blood was in that watch,” she added.
Mossad Director Yossi Cohen said, “We remember Eli Cohen and do not forget. His heritage—of dedication, determination, courage, and love of the homeland—is our heritage. We remember and have maintained a close connection over the years with his family, Nadia and the children.”
“This year, at the conclusion of an operation, we succeeded in locating and bringing to Israel the wristwatch that Eli Cohen wore in Syria until the day he was captured. The watch was part of Eli Cohen’s operational image and part of his fabricated Arab identity,” he added.
Apparently, the woman that had the watch after Cohen’s arrest and execution wanted to sell it. But as she’s old now, her grandchildren knew that Israelis would pay more for it, so they approached them about buying it since they assumed, that they’d pay the most for it.
At a ceremony at Mossad headquarters, Director Yossi Cohen presented the watch to Cohen’s family. Eli Cohen’s daughter Sofia Ben-Dor was excited about it because that is all they have.
“There was great excitement because it is essentially the only item of dad that came back, we have nothing else besides that,” she said.
The watch, she said, “was not kept in pristine condition, but it’s moving to know dad touched it. We haven’t touched it yet, it’s in a frame at the lobby outside the Mossad director’s office.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Mossad for an operation whose sole purpose, he said, “was to bring back to Israel a memory of a great fighter who contributed greatly to the State of Israel.”
So while this operation wasn’t anything as bold as some of their other operations, it shows that the Israelis have a very long memory and a token as this watch is as important to them as it was over 50 years ago. The Israeli government is still trying to get his body returned and even had the Russian government intercede on their behalf. But as of today, that still hasn’t happened. For now, the watch is all they have and will have to suffice.