Photo Credit: Channel 2 screen grab
Eli Cohen, archive photo

{Written by Yoni Ben Menachem and originally posted to the JCPA website}

The Syrian opposition issued reports that the remains of the Israeli spy Eli Cohen had been delivered to the Russians, and they also gave details about the remains of Israelis buried in Syria, in general.

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There has been no clear Israeli denial of these reports. If Cohen’s remains have indeed been transferred, they will have to undergo Israeli identification. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition also issued new information on how Syrian intelligence has been guarding the remains of Israelis in Syria at President Bashar Assad’s bidding.

Israeli intelligence agent Eli Cohen

The Syrian opposition reported on the remains of Israelis and how the Syrian regime has been tending to them.

The first report was issued on Twitter on April 14, 2019, by someone in the Syrian opposition, and it concerned the remains of the Israeli spy Eli Cohen.

The tweet stated:

There are unverified leaks within Damascus itself about a coffin that was transferred with the Russian delegation that left Syria. The leaks say the coffin may contain the remains of the Israeli spy Eli Cohen. We are awaiting verification.

No other source has verified this tweet, which was first publicized in Israel by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. It, too, however, has not been denied clearly by Israel.

Subsequently, the Syrian-opposition website Orient Net posted a detailed report on the remains of Israelis buried in Syria.

Details on Israeli MIAs

The report quoted Syrian intelligence official Omar Abu al-Abd saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had ordered his security systems to guard the graves of the Israeli soldiers as well as their personal effects.

Overseeing the issue on Assad’s behalf was General Ibrahim Hweijah in direct coordination with the Syrian president.

According to the report, the Israeli soldiers were buried at three sites: the Yarmouk refugee camp, the Al-Maza military airport, and the Bab Masala area in the center of the capital, Damascus.

The report also said that the remains of six Israeli soldiers were buried in the Yarmouk camp, including those of Zachary Baumel who was killed in the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in 1982.

It is forbidden to approach the graves without the permission of Syrian intelligence. Syrian intelligence personnel guard the remains against any damage by animals and insects.

The report conveyed further that the Israeli soldiers’ remains in Syria are those of soldiers killed over the past 50 years in battles with both Hizbullah and Palestinian organizations. Their graves are numbered and without names. As mentioned, Syrian intelligence personnel guard them, along with members of the Popular Front-General Command organization of Ahmed Jibril.

According to the report on Orient Net, Jews are buried in the Al-Sheikh Hassan cemetery in the Bab Masala area in central Damascus. Civilians and soldiers, however, are prohibited from coming near these graves and photographing them. The graves are separate from others in the cemetery.

The report also said the Syrian authorities had arrested dozens of Syrians who had connections with Jewish families abroad and tried to photograph the graves and send the pictures to their relatives outside of the country.

The Timing of the Announcement

The timing of the announcement is apparently related to developments in Syria involving the return of Zachary Baumel’s remains for burial in Israel and the ongoing efforts to locate, with the Russians’ help, the remains of the two others who went missing at Sultan Yakoub, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman.

Some of the reports may be accurate. The new information on Orient Net about Assad’s role in safeguarding the Israeli soldiers’ remains is meant to highlight the importance that the Syrian regime ascribes to this issue.

Caution is in order: it is possible that the Syrian opposition’s reports are intended to embarrass Assad’s regime and brand Assad as a collaborator with Israel by helping Israel obtain the remains of the missing Sultan Yakoub soldiers and Eli Cohen – notwithstanding Israel’s intensive airstrikes in Syria.

The execution of Eli Cohen
The execution of Eli Cohen in a public Damascus square on May 18, 1965

The Syrian regime has refused for decades to return Cohen’s remains to Israel. From the Syrian standpoint, Syria’s honor and national security suffered a huge blow when an Israeli spy succeeded in penetrating the ruling elite and providing intelligence of the highest quality to Israel, which helped it, among other things, conquer the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War.

A memorial stone for Eliyahu (Eli) Cohen
A memorial stone for Eliyahu (Eli) Cohen awaits his body in the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem. (Tamar Hayardeni)

If the Syrian opposition’s information on the transfer of Eli Cohen’s remains to Russia is accurate, it represents a very important development. The Syrian regime will be unable to deny it and will have to provide convincing explanations to the Syrian people.

We will have to wait and keep following the developments.

(Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority)

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