Jamie Weinstein
January 26, 2005
Bomb the eucalyptus trees!
By Jamie Weinstein

© 2005 Cornell Daily Sun

In a pre-dawn raid on Jan. 24, 1965, Eli Cohen was arrested in his Syrian apartment. His capture marked the end of one of the greatest espionage operations the world has ever seen.

Cohen was born on Dec. 16, 1924 in Alexandria, Egypt to parents of Syrian decent. In 1957, the 33-year-old Egyptian Jew left the land of his birth permanently for Israel.

In Israel, Cohen offered his services to the Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of our CIA. At first they turned him down twice. The highly selective service discerned after evaluation that despite his high intelligence and courageous personality, Cohen had "an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and a lot of internal tension." They concluded that such predilections led Cohen to "not always evaluate danger correctly" and "assume risks beyond those which are necessary."

Three years later it would be Cohen, now a family man, who would at first turn down the Mossad's offer to be involved in a very special mission. But a month later, Cohen reconsidered and made history.

One of the constant threats Israel faced pre-1967 was shelling by the Syrian army from the hills of the Golan Heights into villages in the Galilee region of Northern Israel. From the highlands, the Syrian army was able to wreak havoc on Israeli civilians, especially farmers working the land.

On top of the shelling, roughly 30 percent of the water Israel depended on originated in Syria and Israel feared that Syria would somehow divert the water in order to deprive them of this vital resource. With this in mind, Cohen was charged with the task of infiltrating Syrian society to gather valuable information.

He went to Argentina in late 1960 to reinvent himself as Kamal Amin Ta'abet, a Syrian émigré to the country and a successful businessman. There, he immersed himself in the vibrant Syrian community and quickly became well-connected and well-liked.

Cohen was soon invited by some of the Syrian contacts he made to go to Damascus for a business deal. There, Cohen continued his quick ascension to the top, becoming close friends with rising leaders in Syrian politics.

All the while Cohen was enjoying life as the toast of Syrian society, he was transmitting important information back to Israel. And when the Ba'ath party took power through a military coup in 1963, Cohen came into a wealth of information. Many of the contacts he had been nurturing since his days in Argentina and in Syria were among the power elite in the Ba'ath party.

One of Cohen's friends, Amin al-Hafez, actually became President and even considered Cohen as the possible Deputy Minister of Defense. While the Golan Heights were off limits to most civilians, Cohen was given tours of each and every Syrian position.

More than just tour this top-secret military site, Cohen was able to provide advice. He suggested to Syrian military officials that they plant eucalyptus trees by all the fortifications on the Golan for the purpose of hiding the military positions from the Israelis and to provide a serene surrounding for the soldiers stationed there. The Syrian military took the advice.

Cohen's four-year rise through Syrian society was remarkable, but more importantly provided invaluable information to Israel from one of its mortal enemies. Forty years ago last Monday, his cover was blown and he was captured in Syria. Despite pleas from Israel, world leaders and even the Pope, he would be hung months later.

What Cohen accomplished did not end on that day in May when he was put to rest. Two years after his death, when the Arab world was once again mobilizing a military campaign to destroy Israel, the only truly free society in the region then and now, Cohen's spirit was there to guide them. After decimating the Egyptian army and defeating the Jordanian army during the first days of their miraculous victory during the Six Day War, Israel turned to the Golan Heights to confront Syria. In taking the Golan, the source of so much turmoil over the years, Israel knew what it had to do: Bomb the eucalyptus trees!

Cohen's story is significant not only because of its harrowing tale of courage and cunning, not to mention its importance to Israel, but what it reveals for America's modern struggle against terrorism. While we may become more technologically advanced, and while our satellites may be the best in the world, nothing replaces human intelligence.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War — "the end of history," as a former Cornellian once deemed it — our human intelligence capabilities have been diminished. With the specter of Communism lifted and no great enemy in site, few saw a pressing need for Cold War era human espionage capabilities. On Sept. 11 we saw how wrong such thinking was.

Recently retired CIA Director George Tenet declared in a speech at Georgetown University that it would take five years to get our "clandestine service" up to snuff. The urgency of the moment doesn't give us the luxury of half a decade.

The United States must remember Cohen's story, and the stories of countless other secret agents from our country, and rapidly rebuild and revamp our human intelligence community. President Bush and new CIA director Peter Goss must do what they can to make our espionage operation second to none.

We must be able not only to use our great technological advantage against our terrorist enemies, but be able to infiltrate their very being. In our current War on Terrorism, this isn't just a desire, but a necessity.

© Jamie Weinstein

 

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