Born in Alexandria, Egypt, to orthodox Jewish parents, Eli Cohen attended Cairo University. He was arrested in 1952 when a series of bombs detonated outside American businesses in Alexandria. This episode became a political scandal in Israel when it emerged that the defense minister, Pinhas Lavon, had personally authorized the attacks to undermine American confidence in Egypt.
Cohen was expelled from Egypt in 1956 and, after undergoing training by the Mossad in Tel Aviv, was sent as an illegal to Syria, where he established himself in Damascus as a wealthy Arab businessman from Argentina, while reporting by radio on military targets and troop deployments on the Golan Heights. His transmitter was eventually traced in January 1965 and he was arrested while on the air. Cohen was hanged in public in May the same year.