Al-Birwa (Arabic: البروة, also spelled al-Birweh) was a Palestinian Arab village, located 10.5 kilometers (6.5 mi) east of Acre (Akka). In 1945, it had a population of 1,460, of whom the majority were Muslims and a significant minority, Christians. Its total land area consisted of 13,542 dunams (13.5 square kilometers). The village was depopulated during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War.
|Coordinates: 32°54′19″N 35°10′49″E|
|Geopolitical entity||Mandatory Palestine|
|Date of depopulation||11 June 1948 or mid-July|
|• Total||13,542 dunams (13.5 km2 or 5.2 sq mi)|
|Cause(s) of depopulation||Military assault by Yishuv forces|
|Current Localities||Ahihud, Yas'ur|
Al-Birwa was mentioned in the mid-11th century CE by the Persian geographer Nasir Khusraw and was known to the Crusaders as "Broet". The village came under Mamluk rule in the late 13th century, and in the early 16th century, it was conquered by the Ottomans, who ruled it for four centuries. Travelers' reports from the late 19th century documented that al-Birwa had a mosque, a church and an elementary school for boys (a girls' school was built in 1942).
During British Mandate rule in Palestine, al-Birwa was home to local power brokers, who mediated disputes in neighboring villages. Al-Birwa became a center of rebel operations during the 1936–1939 revolt against British rule. By the 1940s, many of the village's agrarian inhabitants lost their lands due to debt, and shifted to labor jobs in nearby cities, such as Haifa. However, the majority of the residents—men and women—continued to engage in farming, selling their olives, grains and other crops in the markets of Acre. Al-Birwa was captured by the Israelis in early June 1948, after which its local militia recaptured the village. Al-Birwa was then permanently occupied by the Israelis in late June. Afterward, its inhabitants, including future Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, fled to nearby villages or Lebanon. The Jewish communities of Yas'ur and Ahihud were established on al-Birwa's lands in 1949 and 1950, respectively.
The more ancient site, Tel Birwa (variant: Tel Berweh), lies about one mile southwest of the Arab village by the same name, and is said to be a mound measuring 600 paces in circumference at the top, and 75 feet high. The mound abounds with Graeco-Roman potsherds, showing that it was occupied down to Roman times when it was abandoned, as no distinctively Arab pottery could be found there. Conder and Kitchener thought that Al-Birwa preserves in its name the more ancient name of Beri (Hebrew: בירי), mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesahim iv.1 [26a]), seeing that both it and Kabul are mentioned together. According to Josephus, the villages in the immediate vicinity of Kabul were pillaged and burnt during the First Jewish revolt against Rome.
Al-Birwa was mentioned in 1047 CE, during Fatimid rule, when it was visited by the Persian geographer, Nasir Khusraw. He describes it as lying "between Acre and Damun", and reports having visited what he described as the tombs of Simeon and Esau there. The Crusaders wrested control of Palestine from the Fatimids in 1099. They referred to al-Birwa as "Broet". In 1253, John Aleman, the Crusader lord of Caesarea, sold al-Birwa, along with several other villages, to the Knights Hospitaller. Al-Birwa was mentioned as part of the Acre-based Crusaders' domain in the 1283 hudna (truce agreement) with the Mamluks under Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun. In the late 13th century, the Mamluks defeated and conquered the last Crusader outposts along Palestine's northern coastline.
Al-Birwa came under Ottoman rule in 1517, along with all of Palestine. In 1596, al-Birwa was a small village in the Akka Nahiya (Subdistrict of Acre), part of the Safad Sanjak (District of Safed). The village paid taxes on wheat, barley, fruit, beehives, and goats. According to Ottoman tax registers, al-Birwa had 121 residents in 1596. A map from Napoleon's invasion of 1799 by French cartographer Pierre Jacotin depicted al-Birwa as "Beroweh", though its location on the map was misplaced.
In the late 19th century, al-Birwa grew to be a large village, with a well in its southern area. To the north lay "beautiful olive-groves and fruitful wheatfields," as they were described by one Western traveller to the region in the mid-19th century. American biblical scholar Edward Robinson visited al-Birwa in 1852 and noted that it was one of 18 villages in Palestine with an operating Christian (Eastern Orthodox) church. By 1859, British Consul Edward T. Rogers recorded that al-Birwa had approximately 900 inhabitants. The French explorer, Victor Guérin, who visited in 1875, described the Christians of Birwa as Greek Orthodox, and noted that they had a "fairly new" church.
British Mandate period
In 1917, during World War I, British forces drove out the Ottomans from Palestine and in 1920, the British Mandate of Palestine was established. In the 1922 British census, al-Birwa had a population of 807, consisting of 735 Muslims and 72 Christians. The Christians were mostly Orthodox with five Anglicans. By the 1931 census, the population had increased to 996, of which 884 were Muslims and 92 were Christians, living in a total of 224 houses. Cement roofs became widely used in al-Birwa in the 1930s, during a time of significant expansion in the village.
A number of al-Birwa's inhabitants participated in the 1936–1939 Arab revolt against British rule and mass Jewish immigration in Palestine. A commander of the revolt for the Nazareth-Tiberias region, Sheikh Yihya Hawash, was from al-Birwa. He was arrested by the British and sentenced to life imprisonment. The British also executed eight residents of al-Birwa who had participated in the revolt. Other rebel commanders and participants in the revolt from al-Birwa included Asad Atallah, Mahmoud al-Joudi, Saleh Mahmoud Me'ari-Abu Sa'ud, Abd al-Hamid Daher Me'ari, Muhammad al-Hajj Ali, Yusef Taha, Fadil Eid, Yousif Mai and Abbas al-Shattawi. A number of women from al-Birwa participated in the revolt by transporting arms, water and food to rebels positioned among the hills in the vicinity. Elderly refugees from al-Birwa interviewed in 2003–2004 recalled that during the revolt, local rebels set off a mine that hit a British military jeep on a road adjacent to al-Birwa in August 1937, prompting the British to launch punitive measures against the village. In particular, the British authorities gathered men from al-Birwa and forced them to cut cactus plants near Acre and then placed the men on top of the cactuses.
In the 1945 statistics, al-Birwa's population was 1,460, of which 130 were Christians. Prominent families and landowners in the village included the Saad, Darwish, Abdullah, Kayyal, Sakkas, al-Wakid, al-Joudi, Najm, al-Dabdoub, Khalid, Akawi, Hissian, Hawash and al-Sheikha families. Socio-economic status in the village was largely determined by land ownership. About 140 residents of the village were tenant farmers who worked for the major landowning Moughrabi, al-Zayyat and Adlabi families. According to intelligence gathered by the Haganah (a Jewish paramilitary organization in Palestine), the traditional, local power brokers of the central Galilee were residents of al-Birwa, who "resolved all conflicts in the nearby villages". Haganah intelligence also reported that al-Birwa's inhabitants were "long-lived, the majority reaching an age of over 100 years".
By the 1940s, al-Birwa had three olive oil presses, a mosque, a church, and approximately 300 houses. In addition to the Ottoman-era boys' school, an elementary school for girls was established in 1943. By this time, many of the inhabitants lost all or part of their lands due to debts, and concurrently, men and women from al-Birwa increasingly worked in public projects, such as road construction and the Haifa oil refinery, or in British military installations, to compensate for lost income. However, the main source of income remained agriculture, and the village's principal crops were olives, wheat, barley, corn, sesame, and watermelons. In the 1944/45, residents of the village owned a total of 600 cattle, 3,000 goats and 1,000 chickens. Women, particularly young women from smaller landowning families, participated alongside the men of their family in working the land, while many women from landless families drew income as seasonal workers on other village residents' lands. There were general, gender-based divisions of labor, with women collecting well water, raising livestock, curdling milk, transporting goods to markets in Acre and collecting herbs; men typically plowed and sowed seeds, and both men and women picked olives and harvested crops.
1948 war and aftermath
Israeli forces from the Carmeli Brigade first captured al-Birwa and positions overlooking it on 11 June 1948 as part of Operation Ben-Ami, a day before the first truce of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. During the fighting, 45 elderly residents hid in the church with the priest. The defenders of the village surrendered after losing men and running out of ammunition. The residents took refuge in nearby villages for thirteen days. Nevertheless, clashes continued during the truce. According to local militiamen from al-Birwa, 96 men from the village armed with rifles, and an equal number of men armed with non-firearms and unarmed women assembled near the front lines of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA). The rifle-armed force charged first across the front lines, followed by the men armed with axes, shovels, and sticks, and then the women who carried water to assist the wounded. Al-Birwa's ad-hoc militia took the small force of Haganah soldiers (who became part of the Israel Defense Forces on 26 May) by surprise and forced them back a kilometer west of al-Birwa. Afterward, al-Birwa's residents harvested their crops. They remained in the village until 24 June, when ALA commanders suggested that they join their families in the nearby villages. The militiamen claimed that the ALA stood by during the clashes because they did not receive orders from their superiors.
The Israelis announced that they had battled ALA units in the area, inflicting 100 casualties on 25 June. The New York Times reported that there was fighting in the village for two days and that United Nations (UN) observers were there investigating truce violations. It added that "a small Israeli garrison held al-Birwa prior to the [first] truce", but it fell to ALA troops based in Nazareth who launched a surprise attack. Some residents camped in the outskirts of the village and occasionally managed to enter and gather personal belongings. After the end of the first truce in mid-July, al-Birwa was captured by Israel during Operation Dekel. The ALA fought the Israelis to recapture al-Birwa, but by 18 July, the village was firmly behind Israeli lines.
On 20 August 1948, the Jewish National Fund called for building a settlement on some of al-Birwa's lands, and on 6 January 1949, Yas'ur, a kibbutz, was established there. In 1950, the moshav of Ahihud was inaugurated on the village's western lands. According to Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi, one of al-Birwa's schools, two shrines for local sages, and three houses remained standing as of 1982. One of the shrines was domed and built of stone. Most of the structures stood amid cacti, weeds, olive and fig groves, and mulberry trees. Most of al-Birwa's inhabitants fled to nearby Arab towns and villages, including Tamra, Kabul, Jadeidi-Makr, Kafr Yasif, and other localities. Some fled to Lebanon, and ended up in the Shatila refugee camp, in the outskirts of Beirut, where Palestinian historian Nafez Nazzal interviewed them in 1973. Among the refugees of al-Birwa was Mahmoud Darwish, who was born in the village in 1941 and lived part of his childhood there.
In 1950, Tawfik Toubi, an Arab member of the Knesset, raised the issue of the internally displaced refugees of al-Birwa in the Knesset, demanding that they be allowed to return to their homes. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion replied in the negative, stating, "The questioner presented the facts inaccurately. Birwa is an abandoned village which was destroyed in the fighting. Its inhabitants cooperated with Kaukji's gangs. The Israel Defense Forces and the government did not treat them as they deserved, but permitted them to remain in villages near Birwa, and to become residents of Israel. The government of Israel treats them as it does the other residents of Israel and those lacking means of subsistence. A special body was established to deal with these refugees, to resettle and rehabilitate them, not necessarily in their former villages, and the resettlement of the refugees in Nazareth has already begun." In December 1951, the village site was declared a closed military zone.
Al-Birwa stood on a rocky hill overlooking the Acre plain, with an average elevation of 60 meters above sea level. It was situated at the intersection of two highways—one led to Acre and the other towards Haifa. Located 10.5 kilometers east of Acre, the other nearest localities to al-Birwa included al-Damun (depopulated in 1948) to the south, and the Arab towns of Jadeida to the northwest, Julis to the north, Sha'ab to the east, and Majd al-Kurum to the northeast.
Al-Birwa's total land area consisted of 13,542 dunams (13.42 hectares), of which 59 dunams were built-up areas. of which 130 were Christians. Cultivable land accounted for 77% of the total land area. Orchards were planted on 1,548 dunams of which 1,500 were used for olive groves, while 8,457 were allotted to grains. The residents of the town sold 536 dunams to Jews, and most of the rest was Arab-owned.
In October 2002, a salvage excavation was conducted at the site where once stood the modern Arab village on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Finds include a large building, numerous potsherds from the Late Roman period, a bronze coin from the first or second century CE, remains of an ancient olive press, glass vessels such as a wine goblet and bottles dated to the Late Byzantine and Umayyad periods (seventh and first half of eighth centuries CE) and an underground water reservoir. A few potsherds from the Crusader and Mamluk periods were also found.
- List of Arab towns and villages depopulated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War
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- Welcome To al-Birwa
- al-Birwa, Zochrot
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- Fifth Procession of Return by ADRID in al-Birweh, 2002
- Fifth Procession of Return by ADRID in al-Birweh, Yosefa Mekaitun, 2002, Zochrot
- Inside a Palestinian refugee camp, Martin Asser BBC, 14 May 2008. Interview with Muhammad Diab from al-Birwa, now refugee in the Shatila refugee camp, Lebanon.