By Toby Harnden
The announcement in July 2018 of a successful “special Mossad operation” to recover a watch came more than 53 years after its owner had been publicly hanged in Damascus, Syria.
The Eterna-Matic Centenaire 61 had been purchased in Geneva in 1961 by a Syrian called Kamel Amin Thaabet, who would wear the timepiece for almost four years.
But Thaabet was a fiction. In fact, he was a Mossad officer called Eli Cohen, an Egyptian-born Jew who became Israel’s most legendary spy. Cohen has been depicted in numerous books and screen treatments, including by Sacha Baron Cohen in Netflix's The Spy in 2019.
The Centenaire 61, then marketed as “thin…elegant…new…time and date at a glance, automatically” and retailed at $135 ($1,389 today) was a finishing touch to his cover. It seemed to befit his identity as Thaabet, a wealthy, flamboyant businessman bound for Buenos Aires.
To this day, the remains of Cohen, who operated in Damascus for three years until his capture in January 1965, have never been recovered.
His watch was returned to his wife Nadia in Israel. Like the family of CIA contract pilot Norman Schwartz, killed in Manchuria in 1952, who received a Rolex Oyster Datejust from the U.S government in 2019, the Cohens have no body to bury and only a timepiece from his final mission.
The lengths to which Mossad went to locate the Centenaire and the simmering national anger over the failure by an Arab enemy to return his body speaks to the centrality of espionage and enduring enmities in the psyche of the Jewish state.
(Photo Credit: NetFlix)
With Mossad facing criticism for the intelligence lapses that led to the surprise, barbaric attacks of October 7th by Iran-backed Hamas, Israeli leaders will doubtless consider stories of bravery and sacrifice in the wars against Arabs by the likes of Cohen to be as important and potent as ever.
"We remember Eli Cohen and do not forget,” Yossi Cohen, then Mossad chief—and born in the year the executed spy bought the Centenaire—said in a statement when the watch was found.
“His heritage, of dedication, determination, courage and love of the homeland, is our heritage. We remember and have maintained a close connection over the years with his family, Nadia and the children.
“This year, at the conclusion of an operational effort, we succeeded in locating and bringing to Israel the wristwatch that Eli Cohen wore in Syria until the day he was captured. The watch was part of Eli Cohen's operational image and part of his fabricated Arab identity."
(Photo Credit: Eli Cohen Museum)
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister—a position he now occupies once again—added: “I commend the fighters of the Mossad for the determined and courageous operation, the sole objective of which was to return to Israel a memento from a great fighter who greatly contributed to the security of the state."
Thaabet, as created by Mossad, had been born to parents who were of Syrian origin but had immigrated to Lebanon. After his parents had died, he went to Argentina to work with his uncle, who had emigrated there in 1946.
Eli Cohen, a devout Jew born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1924. His father had moved to Egypt from Aleppo in 1914. His parents and brothers had moved to Israel in 1949. Cohen remained to carry out underground Zionist operations and followed later.
Cohen in Damascus, Syria (Photo Credit: Eli Cohen Museum)
Cohen had initially been rejected as too arrogant for undercover work but was recruited to Unit 188, a military intelligence unit dedicated to operations outside Israel, at the end of 1959.
Mossad trained him to speak Arabic with a Syrian dialect as part of his cover story as Thaabet. Cohen landed in the Argentine capital in February 1961 and began learning Spanish with a private teacher, reaching a proficiency that would convince Syrians he had been living in Argentina for 16 years.
On January 10, 1962, Cohen, as Thaabet, boarded a tourist ship that set out from Genoa, Italy, on a passage to Beirut. From Lebanon, he was helped by Majeed Sheikh al-Ard, a CIA asset from 1951 to 1959, to enter Syria.
Sacha Baron Cohen plays Eli Cohen in The Spy (Photo Credit: Netflix)
Cohen did not try to hide or operate in the shadows. His role was to insinuate himself into the high society of Damascus, renting a luxury villa near the Syrian army headquarters and the diplomatic district.
Soon, he was throwing parties attended by generals and politicians. Cohen had a remarkable memory and he was skilled at pretending he was drunk while keeping a mental note of everything that was being said.
Although there were prostitutes and alcohol at his parties, Israeli sources insist that Cohen cover did not extend to having sexual relationships with Syrian women or taking a girlfriend, as was depicted by Sacha Baron Cohen in The Spy.
Each morning, Cohen radioed out back to Mossad, his transmissions covered by those from the nearby Syrian army base. He dispatched backgammon pieces, modified to contain microfilms of documents he had copied, to “friends” in Argentina.
His intelligence reports tracked the rising influence of the Ba’ath party, which came to power in a coup in March 1963. Amin al Hafiz, who Cohen had befriended when Hafiz was military attache in Buenos Aires, became defense minister. Mossad now had access to the heart of the Syrian government.
Cohen reported details of the Syrian order of battle and border defenses. He was said to have learned about the Jordan River engineering works—designed to divert water from Israel—from Mohammed bin Laden, a Saudi engineer who had won the contract. One of Bin Laden’s sons, Osama, later became the leader of al-Qaeda.
When Israel was able to capture the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War of 1967, credit was given to Cohen’s reporting.
Cohen (in the middle) at the Golan Heights (Eli Cohen Museum)
According to his daughter Sophie Ben-Dor, Cohen was the ideal Israeli spy. “He was a conservative person,” she said in a 2020 documentary. He was very Zionist, very loyal and very honest.
“He was very brave and sociable, but he also really liked his own company. He was very thorough. He knew more than just Arabic. He knew a number of languages to a very high level. He was very intelligent and trustworthy.”
Controversy still rages over how Cohen was caught. Some charge that his Mossad handlers pushed him to produce more, others that Cohen was reckless in transmitting for longer than the two minutes—easily timed by glancing at his Centenaire—he had been told was his limit of safety.
Mossad has accepted a degree of responsibility in recent years. In 2015, then Mossad chief Tamir Pardo said: “In retrospect, it’s clear that his last return to Syria was a mistake. In the profession of secret warfare, we know that from the first moment of an operation, we’re in a countdown to its end.”
(Photo Credit: Eli Cohen Museum)
On January 24, 1965, Syrian troops stormed into Cohen’s apartment while he was transmitting. The Syrians forced him to send bogus messages back to Israel but Cohen was able to indicate he was being coerced. Mossad finally realized the game was up when they received a final message addressed to the Israeli prime minister: “Kamal and friends are our guests for three years. Calm down about the fate of what is to come. Military organization of Syria.”
Cohen, like any intelligence officer behind enemy lines, especially one operating under non-official cover, had already sacrificed an immense amount. Ben-Dor described in the documentary his arrival at the airport in Israel during one of her father’s last visits home.
“I saw him from a distance, wearing a suit and a coat,” she said. “He was nervous. He took my hand and squeezed it. He hardly recognized me. He was so nervous that he hurt my hand but I was too embarrassed to tell him. He was always a stranger to me.”
Eli Cohen executed by hanging in Damascus, Syria- May 1965
He almost certainly endured torture at the hands of the Syrians, who forced him to submit to a show trial and then hanged him before a baying crowd in Marjeh Square. A parchment filled with anti-Zionist slogans was attached to his body, which was left swaying from the rope for six hours.
The Centenaire is said to have been recovered as part of a new push to locate his remains that began in 2004, according to former Mossad chief Meir Dagan.
While the Israeli government hinted in 2018 that the watch was found during a daring undercover mission in Damascus, the Cohen family has suggested that it was bought from a Syrian seeking to profit from its provenance.
Eterna Centenaire 61 (Photo Credit: Invaluable)
Mossad is believed to have kept documentation of the purchase of the Centenaire—perhaps connecting a serial number—that confirmed Cohen purchased it in Switzerland when his cover as Thaabet was being established.
Eterna is a Swiss brand that was founded in Grenchen, Switzerland in 1856 and initially called Dr. Girard & Schild. It gained a reputation for producing high-quality and reliable watches and in 1948 Eterna introduced a revolutionary innovation—the Eterna-Matic automatic movement, featuring a ball-bearing rotor system, which improved accuracy and reliability.
In the 1960s, Eterna became a leader in developing diving watches, introducing the KonTiki line, named after the explorer Thor Heyerdahl's famous raft expedition across the Pacific. The brand would later provide watches to the Israeli Navy, most notably the Shayetet 13, a maritime commando unit to the IDF.
Nadia, widow of Israeli spy Eli Cohen, shows a photograph of herself with her late husband, during an interview with Reuters in Herzliya, Israel October 6, 2019. Picture taken October 6, 2019. (Photo Credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
The Centenaire has been added to the Eli Cohen legend. In 2019, one television reviewer used it to describe the limits of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Netflix portrayal: “Like the watch, the show is durable, handsome, expertly engineered, but predictable in its movements.”
It has, however, provided the Cohen family with a degree of comfort, if not closure. Cohen’s wife Nadia, now 87, described in 2018 being told that the Centenaire, now on display in a new Eli Cohen museum at Herzliya, had been found.
“The moment that they informed me, my mouth went dry and I got the chills. At that moment I felt that I could feel his hand, I felt that part of him was with us.”
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About the author: Toby Harnden is the author of First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11. He is currently working on a new book about courage and the CIA, due to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2025. He can be followed on X at @tobyharnden and on Instagram at @tobyharnden1 and @espionage_bookshelf.