Bayt Jibrin stood on level ground in the western foothills of the Hebron Mountains (approx. location at on map), south of a wadi that bore the same name. The village was at the intersection of ancient roads leading to al-Faluja (Gaza District), Hebron, Jerusalem, and al-Ramla. The Arabic name of the village meant "house of the powerful" and may have been derived from Aramaic. Regional folklore had it that the village was originally inhabitated by Canaanites who were said to be a race of giants.
In Hebrew, the village was known as Beyt Guvrin, and was first mentioned in Latin sources by Josephus Flavius as Betogabra, a village in the heart of Idumea. In A.D. 200, the emperor Septimius Severu granted the town the largest tract of land in the province at the time, and converted the town into the Roman colony of Eleuthcropolis. In the fourth century it became a bishopric.
The Muslims captured Bayt Jibrin towards the end of the reign of the first caliph, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq (d. A.D. 634). The village was the burial place of a companion of the prophet Muhammad, Tamim Abu Ruqayya. The Muslim traveller al-Maqdisi (d. ca. A.D. 990) wrote in A.D. 985 that, even though Bayt Jibrin was declining, it remained an emporium for the towns and villages in the surrounding countryside. Crusaders, who originally mistook the village for Beersheba, called it Beth Giblin and built a castle there in 1137. Yaqut, writing at the beginning of the thirteenth century, referred to Bayt Jibrin as one of the principle towns in Palestine, with a Crusader castle that had been destroyed by Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin). The town was later wrested from Crusader control by the Mamluk Sultan al-Zahir Baybars (1233-1277).
Bayt Jibrin prospered during the Mamluk period, and in the late thirteenth century served as a postal station between Gaza and Karak (a town located in the south of Jordan). A Muslim mystic, Muhammad ibn Nabhan al-Jibrini, set up a hermitage in the village and died there in 1343. Bayt Jibrin was refortified by the Ottomans in 1551, and again by the British during the Mandate. In 1596, Bayt Jibrin was a village in the nahiya and liwa' of Gaza, with a population of 275. Ottoman records report that taxes were paid on a number of crops, including wheat, barley, and sesame, as well as on other types of produce including goats and beehives. The Syrian Sufi al-Bakri as-Siddiqi, who travelled throughout the region in the mid-eighteenth century, reported spending a pleasant night in the village.
In the late nineteenth century, Bayt Jibrin was a large village (approx. population of 900 to 1,000) with buildings of stone and mud. It was situated in a sheltered position in the slope of a valley, and was known for a number of large caverns nearby. Olive groves overlooked the village from the north.
During the Mandate, Bayt Jibrin served as a commercial service center for the area's villages. It had two schools, a clinic, a bus, and a police station. A weekly market held on Tuesdays attracted customers from neighboring communities. The people of Bayt Jibrin cultivated grain and fruit, as well as olives from its ancient olive groves. Agriculture was primarily rainfed. In 1944/45 a total of 30,613 dunums was allotted to cereals, and 2,477 for orchards. Archaeologists working on the site of Bayt Jibrin have recovered mosaic floors from two churches dating to the fourth and sixth centuries A.D., in addition to formerly inhabited caves, burial places, and pigeon towers.
Occupation and Depopulation
In the early stages of the war when Egyptian forces entered Palestine, the First Battalion of the Egyptian army had been ordered to take up positions in Bayt Jibrin (located on the front lines separating Israeli and Egyptian forces). On 4 May 1948, The New York Times reported that thousands of Jaffa's inhabitants fled inland to the Hebron area, and "large numbers of them became cave dwellers in the historic caves of Bayt Jibrin, northwest of Hebron."
Israeli sources indicate that the occupation of Bayt Jibrin occurred during the last stage of Operation Yo'av. Although Operation Yo'av was waged mainly in the southern coastal area (where Israeli forces eventually succeeded in occupying al-Majdal and Isdud), it also involved a campaign by the Giv'ati Brigade into the Hebron hills. After 18 October, Operation Yo'av was coordinated with Operation ha-Har, which involved a thrust into the southern part of the Jerusalem corridor. Both operations were under the command of Yigal Allon who, in the words of Israeli historian Benny Morris, "[had] in all his previous campaigns... left no Arab civilian communities in his wake."
During Operation Yo'av, the Giv'ati Brigade was charged with moving north and east towards Hebron, while other Israeli forces were pushing southwards in the direction of Gaza and the Negev. Morris says that Bayt Jibrin had been bombed and strafed at the beginning of Operation Yo'av on 15-16 October, but The New York Times reported on 20 October that "Bayt Jibrin was added to the usual targets of the Israeli air force for the first time last night [18 October]," and it was "pummeled" again over the next few days. These attacks and a preliminary night raid led to what Morris described as a "panic flight" from the village.
The New York Times printed an Israeli military spokesman's comments on the overall aims of the operation. He said that the Israeli army had no intention of capturing Egyptian army strongholds in the area, merely endeavoring "to cut the roads, [which in] some places were so weakened that it seemed the obvious thing to take them."
Villages such as Dayr al-Dubban (some 6 km to the north) were captured during the northwards push on 23-24 October 1948. Morris records the initial attack on Bayt Jibrin beginning on the night of 24 October 1948, but states that it was not occupied until 27 October. The History of the Haganah place the initial raid on 26 October and confirms that it was occupied the following day.
The occupation of Bayt Jibrin created the "Faluja pocket"--a decisive move that trapped a large contingent of Egyptian soldiers and the village of al-Faluja in the pocket until the end of the war.
After most of Operation Yo'av had been completed, some Israeli units continued to advance eastwards in the Hebron area. On 30 October a New York Times correspondent reported that "Israeli patrols found that several villages in the northern Negev, between Beit Jibrin and Hebron, were empty and occupied them." In Gaza District, Israeli units sacked the city of al-Majdal along with a number of satellite villages on 4-5 November 1948. This final thrust was preceded by air raids along the entire length of the southern coastal area.
The village does not seem to have been destroyed upon occupation, at least not immediately. Morris cites the case of Bayt Jibrin in describing Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion's attitude to the destruction of villages:
"In his diary, Ben Gurion occasionally seems to have deliberately tried to put future historians off the scent. Thus, on 27 October.... he found time to insert the following: 'Tonight our army entered Beit Jubrin... Yigal [Allon, OC Southern Front] asked [permission] to blow up some of the houses. I responded negatively.'" [M:165]
The settlement of Beyt Guvrin was established on village lands in 1949, north of the village site (Return to map above).
The Village Today
A mosque, an unidentified shrine, and a number of houses are all that remain. The mosque is built of stone, has high arched windows on all sides, as well as similarly arched doors. In the back it has a domed porch with a large round arch. It is surrounded by wild vegetation. Some of the original houses are inhabited by Israelis, while others are deserted. One of the houses--a two-storey stone building with a rectangular door and windows--has been converted into an Israeli restaurant and outdoor cafe, bearing the Arab name al-Bustan ("the garden"). Prefabricated Israeli houses have been erected near the deserted shrine. The site is overgrown with tall grasses, shrubs, cactuses, and eucalyptus trees. Because of its rich antiquities, the surrounding area has been made into a tourist attraction.
Material compiled by Rami Nashashibi, June 1996.
Page design by Birzeit Web Team, March 1997.
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