Was Yakuba Cohen Israel's Greatest Spy?

Plastic surgery that transformed his appearance and countless incredible operations have established Jacob ("Yakuba") Cohen as a legendary spy who operated in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt. A testimony he gave before he died sheds new light on his story

The burial plot at the cemetery of Kibbutz Alonim in northern Israel is situated at the heart of a pastoral thicket: in the last days of winter, only feeble sun rays penetrate through the tree branches. The tranquility, interrupted only by the chirping of birds, does not betray the fact that under this tombstone lies one of the most tempestuous and fascinating spies in the history of Israeli intelligence: Jacob "Yakuba" Cohen.

The story of Yakuba is not widely known to the general public, but within the intelligence community he is a true legend. Generally, the glory of spies normally involves a paradox: the more successful the spy is, the higher the chances that his activity will remain shrouded in secrecy and unknown to the general public, even after his or her death. The better known spies are those whose operations had been exposed, namely - those who were "blown".

Yakuba Cohen was born in 1924 in the Nahalat-Zion neighborhood of Jerusalem, to a Jewish family of Persian origins. He had 12 brothers and sisters, and his father, a Bible and Hebrew teacher, was very strict about everyone in the household speaking Hebrew. Young Yakuba spent a lot of his time playing with the children of the nearby Arab village of Sheik-Bader, absorbing their language and culture. The village sheik was a friend of Yakuba's grandfather and in those days relations between Jews and their Arab neighbors were good. However, pursuant to the hostilities of 1936-37, the picture changed somewhat. "One day, in 1936, while I was working during the summer holiday in the Montefiore neighborhood, I saw three Arabs passing through a nearby field and a Jew walking in the opposite direction. They proceeded to stab him to death and as I watched the entire incident, I screamed my head off," Yakuba recounted about an incident that had a profound effect on him as a child.

At 16, Yakuba left home and joined a preparatory training program of HaNo'ar Ha'Oved VeHaLomed, a Jewish socialist youth movement. A year later he was recruited into the Palmach (the combat element of the Haganah, the Jewish clandestine paramilitary organization) and joined the newly established Arab Squad. This was his baptism by fire as far as the intelligence world was concerned.

Yakuba was the first Jewish activist who actually prayed at Muslim mosques and the first who assimilated into Arab society, having obtained the authentic identity papers of a Muslim Arab.

Yakuba assumed the identity of a young Syrian Arab, Jamil Mohammad Rushdi (the name he kept throughout his service in the Palmach, until after the War of Independence – M.B.) and began working as a porter in the port of Haifa, having managed to outwit even Abba Hushi, who ran the port in those days. His objective was to assimilate into the other workers, who were predominately Arabs. For three months, Yakuba lived the life of an Arab from the Hauran, under miserable conditions, filthy and covered with lice, until he broke down.

"I said: 'that's enough; that's as far as I go, I cannot stand it any longer. I do not care about Zionism, I do not care about the Palmach and I do not care about the unit' – the situation had become unbearable. I cried like a child at that moment. Is that the meaning of being an Arab? Do you have to be dirty and smelly? Do you have to eat straw, to eat shit and work like a man possessed, without showering? What is it? Is this our job? An Arab can be a normal person – he does not have to be so filthy. What notions do these people entertain? Everyone who happened to sit down next me immediately drew away, saying 'this Arab stinks'. At first, when it happened, I would laugh and enjoy myself, but then I began to be offended, just like a real Arab. Stinks? Of course I stink, but go and explain to them that I was doing this for Zionism," recounted Yakuba, describing his feelings in a conversation with Isa Daphni, the daughter of Yitzhak Sade, who was the first commander of the Palmach. A hug and some encouragement from Sade calmed Yakuba down and restored his persistence.

In 1943, Yakuba took part in the first operation in which the Arab Squad participated, which came to be known as "The Surgical Operation". It was a reprisal operation the objective of which was to castrate an Arab youth who had raped a Jewish girl. "The rape was shocking and the punishment also sounds shocking today. We were briefed by a physician in Afula, but encountered difficulties trying to anaesthetize the subject and the business became really nasty. Luckily, the 'operation' was successful and eventually the fellow even managed to recover," recounted Yakuba at the time. During the operation, he was assigned to guard the subject's family, while two of his comrades in arms, Yohai Bin-Nun (who subsequently became the commander of the IDF Navy) and Amos Horev (who later became the President of the Technion) "handled" the subject. Later on, Yakuba was involved in tracking, kidnapping and eliminating a sheik from Safed who had been accused of raping a mother and her daughter in Rosh-Pina.

The first time Yakuba travelled abroad generally and to an Arab country in particular was when he attended the coronation of King Abdullah in Jordan in 1946. The purpose of this trip, he recounted later, was "to actually live my Arab cover". He returned from Jordan with information about the unstable mental condition of Prince Talal, the father of the future king Hussein.

During the War of Independence and the first few years following the establishment of the State of Israel, Yakuba lived in Lebanon under the fake identity of a taxi driver working the Beirut-Tripoli line. On occasion, he travelled to Damascus as well. This job provided him with a perfect cover and enabled him to collect intelligence and travel from one place to another without any restrictions.

One of the significant operations in which he participated was when he entered Syria, twice, with his fellow unit member Shimon Horesh. Returning from their first excursion, they brought information about the Syrian forces deployed along the border with Israel. On the following night, they crossed the border again, under instructions issued by Yitzhak Rabin, and returned to photograph the Syrian tanks and guns, equipped with some Arrack and Novydrine amphetamines. The two undercover "Arabs" who were supposed to visit the town of Quneitra, travelled as far as Damascus and brought back valuable information about the Syrian Army. These operations provided the foundation for the subsequent insertion of Israeli agents disguised as Arabs for long-term stays, some lasting many years, in Arab countries.

Following the establishment of the State of Israel and the IDF, the Arab Squad was transferred under command of the Corps of Intelligence and Yakuba began to operate intensively in the neighboring countries. Between 1948 and the early 1950s he spent his time travelling between Syria and Lebanon, establishing contacts and laying the infrastructure for Israeli intelligence networks. Initially, he departed for Lebanon carrying a massive stock of explosives and 10,000 English Pounds in cash. A ship dropped him off, alone, on a strip of coastline near Beirut, after he had received the following order from Isser Be'eri, the head of military intelligence: "Pin down, immobilize, engage the Lebanese and drive them crazy with attacks and sabotage operations. I know you are a good demolition man and a fighter. Go in peace and we are currently opening a new leaf for the State of Israel," Be'eri told him. He stashed the explosives on St. Michel beach, to the south of Beirut, and rented an apartment nearby.

Yakuba's landlord in Beirut, an employee of the municipality of Beirut, put him in touch with Lebanese Member of Parliament Sheik Salim Huri, brother of President Bishara Huri. Yakuba kept on working the Beirut-Tripoli line, fantasizing about blowing up the refineries in the northern town and using Salim Huri's name to open doors for himself. His associations with the Lebanese elite intensified and he served as driver for numerous local personalities. At one point he even met and befriended Fawzi al-Qawugji, the Lebanese officer who had come to Palestine at the head of an army of volunteers with the intention of helping the local Arabs during the hostilities of 1936-1937 and the War of Independence.

In 1950, when a decision was made in Israel to try and eliminate the Lebanese Prime Minister Riyad el-Solkh, who was regarded as the most extremist Arab leader of the time, Yakuba tailed the Lebanese leader while planning and devising all sorts of ways to get near him with explosives and blow him up. Eventually, the plan he had devised was not sanctioned by the authorities in Israel who feared it was too risky, and the assassination did not take place. El-Solkh was eventually murdered by henchmen of the Syrian National Party.

"I had this habit when I was in Lebanon," Yakuba recounted before he passed away, "They would execute people in public, even for robbery and larceny, and I don't know why, but I had this obsession, every time I heard that someone was going to be executed, I would go over to watch it. Not out of sadism, but a voice kept nagging me in my mind, telling me that one day I would be standing there, in the same situation, so I wanted to see what it felt like for a person who was about to be executed. How would he respond? How would he conduct himself? I saw some amazing cases there."

Yakuba said further that in order to pass smoothly from Lebanon to Damascus through the Syrian border inspection station in Jedeida, a journey he made very often, he would take along some girlie magazines and put them on the seat beside him. "When they came to search the vehicle, they would look at the pictures and peek inside. I would tell them to keep the magazines, and so I managed to establish contact with the station master and the guards. The station master was a Damascus man, and while they were searching, they would steal a lot of things and he would ask me to transfer the stolen goods to his home in Damascus."

A Brief Intermission

In the early 1950s Yakuba returned to Israel after he had felt that he needed a break. "All of the plans I had sent to my superiors in Israel, they would just lead me down the garden path. We were risking our lives, and it seemed that they were not taking us seriously," he recounted once, hinting that his superiors in Israel did not realize how important he had become and failed to note the status he had established for himself in Lebanon. "As they kept postponing my return and wanted me to pass through France first, I told them, in these very words: 'if by this and that date you do not order me to return, you will find me in Kibbutz Alonim (where the Arab Squad had eventually settled, M.B.) with the car,' and they knew I meant it." When he returned to the Kibbutz, he married Mira, whom he had met in Alonim in the past, when she was still a young girl, and the two started a family. Yakuba became a student at the Oranim seminary, and throughout the 1950s served as teacher and mentor to the children of his Kibbutz, while departing on special assignments and operations all the while.

Aviezer Cohen, Yakuba's younger brother, had this to tell about one of the incidents in which Yakuba was involved in those years: "He interrogated the (Egyptian) prisoners of war after the Kadesh campaign. We had captured five generals and thousands of POWs and he interrogated them. They were certain he was 'blown'. His face had become familiar and it would not be possible to send him out again, but then they needed to carry out some operation on the Suez Canal and they approached him, naturally. One day he was sitting in a respectable restaurant in Port Said, suddenly two people walked in and he positively identified one of them as an officer he had interrogated at the time. He told me he had never felt his 'balls tremble' as he did that time. He actually lost his confidence. But as everyone knows, the best defense is a good offense, so when those people kept staring at him, he turned his head and confronted the officer he had interrogated. Rotating the palm of his hand, he said to him: 'What do you want? Do you know me from somewhere?' It worked, and he managed to walk out of the restaurant unharmed. Immediately thereafter, they pulled him out of Egypt," recounts Aviezer. "After this case, they had to change his appearance. It was in 1957 at the Tel-Hashomer hospital. They had brought in some specialist from overseas who was supposed to teach Israeli physicians how to perform plastic surgery. As far as Yakuba was concerned, they changed his nose and his cheeks slightly. That was a man who devoted all of his life to his country. There are not many like him anymore."

Yakuba's family learned about the operation only after the fact. "He said he was going on some training activity and would not be near a telephone for ten days, so he would not be able to call," recounts Yakuba's widow, Mira. "I did not know he was going in for plastic surgery. Our eldest daughter, Noga, had come down with something, by this time he was already recuperating from his operation, so we alerted him and he arrived and walked into the children's room in the Kibbutz. I looked at him and asked: 'What happened to you?!' I was certain he had been injured. His eyes were bloodshot and his face looked bruised. But that was how we lived. For half of his life he told cover stories and kept even me in the dark with regard to many things. The thing that mattered most to Yakuba was the fact that I never asked questions. I realized that by doing so I might place him at risk. I knew how to keep my mouth shut. He would disappear for a week here, a week there, so I waited for him at home and raised three children. Today I thank myself for not asking any questions back then, as otherwise I would have become completely mad."

Between 1958 and 1959, Yakuba spent some ten months in South America. To this day, almost none of his fellow servicemen or acquaintances can shed any light about this period. However, according to various opinions, his objective was to blend into the large Syrian and Lebanese communities in Argentina and Brazil in order to prepare the groundwork for the insertion of Israeli agents. As everyone knows, Eli Cohen, who spied for Israel in Syria in the early 1960s, and subsequently captured and executed, had been sent to Argentina initially, in order to develop for himself the identity of a Syrian businessman in exile before he travelled to Damascus.

"When he went to South America, I had Sam'an (Shlomo Somekh, who was Yakuba's instructor back in the days of the Arab Squad of the Palmach, M.B.) serving as a contact. There was no direct communication whatsoever between me and Yakuba during those months," recounts Mira Cohen. "When he returned, he brought a doll for our daughter Noga, and she asked 'Mom, who is that?' She did not recognize him. That detachment broke him. I know it was very difficult for him to become detached from the children and he gave up many things, but he was committed to his work."

When it was decided to sink a ship in the Suez Canal, in response to yet another Egyptian refusal to allow passage to a ship that carried a cargo to Israel, Cohen succeeded in obtaining unique and exceptionally important information from Egypt. For this operation, many people claim that he should have been awarded a special decoration. "He always had tremendous resourcefulness and exceptional courage and in every operation where they had estimated that there was no chance that he would return, they always said: 'Let's ask Yakuba if he is willing and if he thinks he can pull this off.' He always rose to the challenge and always managed to get away," recounts Aviezer, Yakuba's brother.

In the early 1960s, the special unit to which Yakuba had belonged was transferred from the IDF Corps of Intelligence to the Mossad, and in 1965 the family departed on a mission to Iran. While his wife and children remained in Tehran, Yakuba set up camp on the Iran-Iraq border and employed agents inside Iraq, working in cooperation with the Iranians and maintaining the identity of an Iranian officer. During the Six-Day War, after Yakuba and his wife Mira had each lost a brother, the family returned to Israel. According to historian and researcher Arie Yitzhaki, during his term in Iran, Yakuba managed to infiltrate a local terrorist organization. "He managed to infiltrate (the organization) with exceptional effectiveness, then advanced through the ranks and obtained information from the highest ranking commanders," says Yitzhaki.

When he returned to Israel, he was certain his days as an intelligence operative were over, but in early 1968, following the occupation of the territories in the Judea and Samaria in the Six-Day War, Yakuba was asked to join Israel Security Agency (ISA – Shin Bet), and for seven years thereafter he helped train agents and collaborators beyond the new borders established following the war, and even served, for a while, as the head of the ISA interrogator unit in the Judea and Samaria district. "Yakuba knew how to spot, sort and train suitable people. During that time we carried out some very nice operations," recalls Rafi Siton, who belonged to IDF unit 504 in those days.

"One day, ISA sources delivered information about a terrorist squad. It was during the 'hot pursuit' period, after the Six-Day War," recounts Brig. Gen. (res.) Tzuri Sagi, the commander of the IDF Shomron brigade in those days. "I asked for a detachment from Sayeret Matkal to pose as another terrorist squad coming in to assist the squad that had already infiltrated. We attached a forward command group to them, and then we realized that they had come under suspicion. I had them discharged and asked for another detachment that would look more credible. They sent me a detachment from the Haruv unit. I called for Yakuba and told them: 'You keep your mouths shut – only Yakuba will do the talking.' Yakuba, naturally, succeeded in establishing contact with the terrorist squad and set up a rendezvous, but during the meeting, with all of them disguised as Arab terrorists, an officer from the Haruv unit discharged his weapon sideways by accident, chopping off two of Yakuba's fingers. Yakuba refused to be evacuated until the operation ended. He was not supposed to take part in such an operation, but he was simply the most suitable man for the job."

The period of activity in the Judea and Samaria district was highly intensive. "In those days, we were only three interrogators working the entire Judea and Samaria district. I was the boss of this entire business," Yakuba recounted once. "These were very difficult years. Days without sleep, without food. I would grab a chair, sit down and doze off for ten minutes and then get up and continue working for eight more hours. I would return from Hebron or Nablus, come home, and later, when I woke up, I could not remember how I had passed through Jenin or when I had passed through Nablus."

In 1974, he decided to pack up the family and depart on a three-year mission in Milan, where he served as a security officer and occasionally performed various operations as a Mossad man. "Yakuba succeeded in obtaining a lot of information about the terrorist organizations. Those were the years of the war against the 'Black September' organization and the various aircraft hijackers, and he succeeded in obtaining fascinating and vital bits of information," notes historian Arie Yitzhaki. "Even as an embassy security officer he was the right man at the right place. When someone came to the embassy and wanted to volunteer information, he knew how to identify the more reliable individuals and coax the more relevant facts out of them."

When the family returned to Israel after spending three years in Italy, Yakuba finally decided it was time to retire from his tempestuous double life. A decision to return to normal work was not in the least a simple matter for this mercurial field agent, "I felt that if it does not happen now, it will never happen –  but the first year of routine life was extremely difficult," he recounted.

For the next 25 years, Yakuba served as handyman and housekeeper in his Kibbutz, and at the same time he continued to train young intelligence agents. In 1983 he was chosen to be included among the lighters of torches at the ceremony opening Israel's Independence Day celebrations, as one of the persons representing Israeli heroism, but even after that Yakuba remained a relatively anonymous person. "At the time, we tried to convince him to document his stories, to tell about operations that I can say were truly beyond compare, but he would have none of that," recounts the former deputy head of ISA and current Member of Knesset Israel Hasson, who had become a close friend of Yakuba. "He told me some fantastic tales, but we had an agreement that whatever he had never spoke about in public would go with him to his grave, and that was a living will and testament. He had infinite devotion and operational capabilities that only a few have ever possessed. I can only say that with regard to the things he did, in this day and age the State Comptroller would have claimed that he had transgressed a whole lot of procedures."