Jerusalem: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday he was working to repatriate the remains of Eli Cohen, an Israeli agent executed in 1965 after working deep undercover in Syria.
Cohen, whose story was the subject of a 2019 Netflix series “The Spy” starring Sacha Baron Cohen, was tried and hanged for espionage by Syria after he had infiltrated the top levels of the Damascus regime.
“I can tell you that with respect to Eli Cohen, we do not stop looking,” Netanyahu, who is in the midst of a re-election campaign ahead of polls later this month, told Army Radio.
The comment comes after the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said that Russian forces had been searching the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus for the remains of Cohen and two Israeli soldiers.
Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP that Russian forces have taken “samples from... remains that were exhumed (from Yarmuk) to conduct DNA tests and verify the identity of the corpses.”
Russian forces are deployed in Syria to support President Bashar Al Assad in the country’s civil war.
Syria and Israel are bitter foes with no diplomatic relations, but Russia has acted as intermediary between the two, including during a low-level prisoner exchange last month.
Tel Aviv-based i24News reported Tuesday that Netanyahu had indicated Russia was acting on Israel’s behalf in the Cohen case.
Netanyahu disputed that report, telling army radio: “I did not say and I am not telling you that we are doing it through Russia, but we do not give up.”
A Palestinian journalist and activist in Damascus, who spoke to AFP on the condition of anonymity over security concerns, said the cemetery in Yarmuk camp is “heavily guarded.”
But “some residents have sighted Russian soldiers entering the cemetery and surrounding areas,” the journalist said.
The information Cohen obtained was seen as playing a key role in Israel’s conquest of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Syria has not responded over the years to Israeli requests to repatriate Cohen’s remains on humanitarian grounds.
Pleas sent in 2004 by then Israeli president Moshe Katsav were passed to his Syrian counterpart Bashar Al Assad by French, German and United Nations envoys.
In 2018, Israel’s Mossad spy agency said that it had brought home Cohen’s wristwatch in a “special operation.”
The watch had been held in Syria since Cohen’s execution on 18 May, 1965, Mossad said.