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Exploring the Eli Cohen trail in the Golan Heights

The six part Netflix original movie, The Spy, tells the story of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy living in Damascus from 1962-65. Cohen became very friendly with the Syrian military elite, gained valuable information which he transmitted to his handlers in Israel. He was eventually caught in 1965 in Damascus and hanged on a public square.

Eli Cohen, credit Israel Government Press Office

During the period that Cohen was in Syria, Syria controlled the Golan Heights and much of it was a militarized zone with access only by approved military personnel. Eli Cohen had befriended Amin el Hafez while living in Buenos Aires. Hafez, a Baathist, later participated in taking over Syria in 1965. His deep friendship with Eli Cohen enabled Cohen to gain access to several points in the strategic Golan Heights during the 1963 – 65 period. Cohen was able to gain valuable strategic information about the Syrian activities in this area and he is credited with providing critical information which enabled Israel to capture the Golan Heights in 1967.

The Eli Cohen trail, is a 70 km long trail extending from the southern to the northern Golan Heights. The tour begins at Hamat Gader (location of hot springs) in the southern Golan Heights, overlooking Jordan and extends north with stops at nine different points along the trail. Every stop is either a place where  Eli Cohen visited or which was critical to that time period and the Syrian control of the Golan Heights.  Hamat Gader is part of an enclave that was the Syrians took from Israel  in 1951 (it was extremely challenging for Israel to hold the site after 1948) and it became a resort for Syrian officers and their relatives. Through his military contacts Cohen was often a guest there. despite the fact that it was closed to civilians.

Plaque commemorating Cohen outside Hamat Gader. In the background is the Syrian officers hotel.

At stop 2, there is a panoramic view of the Yarmouk valley and one can see  the railroad bridge over the Yarmouk river that was blown up by Israel’s Haganah in 1946. The railroad bridge, constructed by the Ottoman Turks, remains in exactly the same condition today as it did when it was destroyed over 70 years ago.

View of the Yarmouk Valley and the railroad bridge built by the Turks and destoyed by the Haganah in 1946. Photo courtesy Elisa Moed, Travelujah

There is also an old French Customs House that was used by the Syrians as a checkpoint. A number of photos of Cohen, including his  business card and the apartment in which he lived in Damascus are pictured on the walls.

There is also a stop at a Syrian officers building overlooking Israel and the Sea of Galilee.

Officers Former Syrian Officers building on Golan heights
Former Syrian officers building on Golan heights

The Eli Cohen Trail was completed in 2013. Unique, hand carved sculptures created by Yuval Lupan from Kibbutz Ginosar, are situated at many of the sites – and provide an additional level of depth and meaning to the trail. There are also audio recordings at some of the stations as well as photos of Eli Cohen in his capacity as a spy.

Eli Cohen was born in Egypt to Syrian parents and he immigrated to Israel in 1957 and married Iraqi-born Nadia two years later. He worked undercover in Egypt helping Egyptian Jews to immigrate to Israel in the early 50’s and upon returning to Israel worked as an accountant. With the Syriann border heating up, the Mossad recruited Cohen in the early 1960’s. His Arabic was perfect and  they thought he could fit into Syrian high society. He trained for several months and inn 1962 he was sent into Buenos Aries and later, Syria as Kamal Amin Sabet.

Stop number 8 one sees the former Syrian army headquarters where the upper echelons of Syrian society would visit. There is also the very sculpture of a lock and key symbolizing the secrecy of the activities within the building.

Sculpture outside the former Syrian army headquarters in the Golan Heights where Eli Cohen visited
Golan Heights sunset view

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