Al Jazeera World

The Beirut Spy: Shula Cohen

The story of Shula Cohen, aka The Pearl, who spied for the Israelis in Lebanon for 14 years.

A film by Rania Rafai

When Shula Cohen was arrested for espionage in 1961, Beirut society was shocked.

How could such an elegant, classy, high society woman turn out to be an Israeli spy?

Shulami, “Shula”, Cohen was born of Jewish parents in Argentina and grew up in Israel. At 16, she was married off to a wealthy Lebanese Jewish businessman, Josef Kishik, and moved to Beirut. 

Jewish people are raised to think of a Mossad spy as a superhero, capable of doing anything, anywhere and by any means. The idea is instilled in every Israeli from age three to 80. The spy for them is a superman.

by Nasser Laham, journalist

It’s not entirely clear how Cohen, code-named The Pearl, became a spy for the Jewish Agency and then for the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, when it was formed in December 1949.

One theory is that she had always wanted to be involved in the building of Israel. Another is that she was recruited in Jerusalem and her marriage to Kishik was a “front”.

Either way, Cohen carved out a prominent place in the higher echelons of Beirut society and hosted salons where she entertained and cultivated politicians, influential businessmen and senior army officers.

She used these parties, her cafes, casinos and her husband’s Beirut shop to make contacts who would enable her to provide intelligence to Israel and to build a spy network.

“Shula Cohen established this network not only to gather information but also to smuggle Jews via the south,” said writer Saqr Abu Fakhr.

Cohen was part of a huge operation called “Aliya Bet” to bring Jews from Arab countries through Lebanon into Palestine. Arabs were opposed to the settlement of Jews in pre-1948 Palestine, so their transit had to be secret. Jewish emigration from Arab countries to Israel remained highly contentious post-1948, and so this smuggling continued for many years.

“The big success was not the information she gave, but she was there, and the people from here, from the army, would go to Prime Minister Ben Gurion and say ‘we have spies in the heart of Lebanon’,” said Ronni Shaked, a journalist at the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth.

Cohen hosted high society salons frequented by government officials, senior military figures and influential businessmen[screengrab/Al Jazeera]
Cohen hosted high society salons frequented by government officials, senior military figures and influential businessmen[screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Rumours began to circulate about the goings-on at Cohen’s salons and their clientele, with suggestions that sex was bought and sold.

Lebanon’s intelligence service, Le Deuxieme Bureau, was set up by President Fouad Chehab and asked to observe Cohen.

“We considered it a new challenge to reveal what that woman was hiding, what her job was and who she was working for,” Major General Sami al-Khatib remembered.

We rented an apartment above Shula Cohen’s house in the same building. We also rented a second apartment opposite Shula Cohen’s. We started spying on her through remote listening devices on the floor, wall or ceiling, linked to satellites. We recorded the voices and sent them to control rooms. Each apartment worked 24 hours a day.”

After two months of surveillance, the Deuxieme Bureau decided it had all the information on Cohen it needed. It planned a raid for August 9, 1961.

“Shula Cohen’s arrest in Beirut was a shock. She was a spy receiving high-ranking figures at her salons. It was a shock to Lebanese public opinion that Lebanon could be infiltrated,” said Saqr Abu Fakhr.

Cohen’s trial began on October 27, 1961, and received massive amounts of media attention. But, interestingly, nothing came out during the trial about the many Lebanese and other Arab politicians who had been caught in her clandestine web.

Who was the Beirut spy, Shula Cohen?

On July 25, 1962, Cohen was sentenced to death. But due to international pressure, including from Israel, her sentence was commuted to 20 years.

Cohen only served six years of her sentence imprisoned in Beirut.

Israel took a large number of Arab prisoners during the second Arab-Israeli war in 1967 – and Cohen, among others, was exchanged for a number of Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian soldiers in the summer of 1967.

Shula Cohen died in Jerusalem on May 21, 2017, aged 100. Also in 2017, the Lebanese authorities claimed to have made several arrests in connection with the passing of information to Mossad. Shula Cohen has passed away, but her legacy lives on.