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Israeli radio plays 1962 interview with spy

Nadia Cohen
Nadia Cohen remembers her husband Eli Cohen during a 1999 interview in Jerusalem. Ruth Fremson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel's Army Radio on Sunday played parts of an interview given by Israel's most famous spy, marking 45 years since his capture and execution.

In the 1962 interview on Damascus Radio, Eli Cohen is in character as businessman Kamal Amin Thabit. He comments on Arabic music and society, but the sound quality of some of the excerpts heard Sunday was unclear.

The broadcast came as tensions between Israel and Syria have been on the rise, as each side charges that the other is preparing for war.

Cohen is revered in Israel as a highly talented agent who worked his way into the upper echelons of Syrian government and society, feeding Israel with valuable political and military intelligence, which he transmitted back to Israeli via clandestine radio broadcasts.

Cultivating his contacts by throwing lavish parties, Cohen befriended senior Syrian intelligence officers, arranging a rare tour of the Golan Heights overlooking northern Israel. He supplied Israel with details of the Syrian fortifications in the Golan, which proved crucial to the Jewish state's capture of the strategic territory in the 1967 Mideast war.

Syria demands the Golan back as a condition for a peace accord.

Cohen also relayed detailed Syrian plans to divert the waters of the Jordan River away from Israel, leading to an Israeli air force attack in 1964 that foiled the project.

Hanged in a public square
He arrived in Damascus in 1962 and spied for Israel until his capture. He was hanged in a public square in Damascus on May 18, 1965.

Cohen was born in Egypt to Syrian Jewish parents. Since his execution, Israel has been trying unsuccessfully to persuade Syria to return his remains to Israel.

In the interview, Cohen — who was posing as a Syrian business man who had lived as an expatriate in Argentina — was asked why he returned to Syria from South America. He explained that he did not know enough about Syria.

"I have been asked to talk about my country and did not know what to say," he said. "Then I told myself, let's go see my land, see how it has developed."

His widow, Nadia, told Israel TV Sunday that she could not clearly identify Cohen's voice because of the accent and the poor sound quality. Even so, she said that hearing it affected here deeply.

"The only comfort was in the pills I take. Without them I cannot deal with this kind of stress," she said.

Syria and Israel have been bitter enemies since Israel was created in 1948, and tensions still run high. Israel accuses Syria of arming the Lebanese Hezbollah with rockets and other weapons to be aimed at Israel. Damascus charged that last week's large-scale Israeli civil defense drill was evidence that Israel was plotting an attack on Syria.

Hezbollah and Israel fought a fierce monthlong war in 2006.

Israel has said it has sent messages to Syria assuring Damascus that Israel has no intention of attacking. At the same time, Israeli leaders routinely ask world leaders to put pressure on Syria to stop supplying weapons to Hezbollah.