“They killed him and we could do nothing but watch”

Following the footsteps of Mossad’s “Warrior 88”

Today is Israel’s Memorial Day.

A week ago I had my last field-study trip, this time to the Golan Heights, before completing work on my new book, Rise and Kill First (Random House 2018).

The trip was in the footsteps of Eli Cohen, Israeli Military Intelligence and the Mossad’s most famous spy, who was known as “Warrior 88” and who was active at the heart of Damascus for three years in the 1960s under the cover of a Syrian businessman, socialite and playboy. He had visited these sites, which I photographed this week, when they were still under Syrian control, as part of his project to map the Syrian forces deployed along the border with Israel.

In the forthcoming book there is an in-depth discussion, based partly on internal Mossad and Military Intelligence documents, and interviews with his handlers, of the recruitment, the handling, and the capture of Cohen, who was exposed, arrested, tried and executed.

Cohen’s sunken eyes, as seen in television broadcasts from his trial, bore witness to the tortures he had endured. His captors had torn out his fingernails and had applied electrodes to his sexual organs. The Mossad command, unable to save him, felt helpless. The man who had recruited, trained, and operated Cohen, Gedaliah Halaf, told me years later: “I looked at him, at my Eli, on Syrian television, and I saw in his face the diabolical torments he had undergone. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted to scream, to do something, to take a pistol and break into the Mezzeh prison, to bang my head against the wall until it broke, until we could save him. And they killed him and we could do nothing but stand there and watch.”

History’s twists and turns: Halaf is the father of the prominent architect Oded Halaf, and of the children’s book writer Dafna Halaf, who became the partner of the brilliant actor Sasson Gabbai. In the film about the affair, Gabbai played the part of the Colonel Abd el Khalim Hatoum, commander of the Syrian special forces, who was a good friend of “Kamal Amin Thabet” Cohen’s cover character in Damascus, and his companion at wild parties in CohenThabet’s luxurious residence in Damascus; later on, Hatoum was the head of the court that sentenced Cohen to death.

Here are some of the pictures I took and relevant documents.


In honor of the upcoming 69th Independence Day (tomorrow), I would like to wish the State of Israel and, all of you as well, many years of prosperity and success.