Mahmoud Darwish was born in the village of al-Birwa in the Western Galilee. He was the second child of Salim and Houreyyah Darwish. His family were landowners. His mother was illiterate, but his grandfather taught him to read. After Israeli forces assaulted his village of al-Birwa in June 1948 the family fled to Lebanon, first to Jezzin and then Damour. The village was then razed and destroyed by the Israeli army to prevent its inhabitants from returning to their homes inside the new Jewish state. A year later, Darwish's family returned to the Acre area, which was now part of Israel, and settled in Deir al-Asad. Darwish attended high school in Kafr Yasif, two kilometers north of Jadeidi. He eventually moved to Haifa.
He published his first book of poetry, Asafir bila ajniha or "Wingless Birds", at the age of 19. He initially published his poems in Al Jadid, the literary periodical of the Israeli Communist Party, eventually becoming its editor. Later, he was assistant editor of Al Fajr, a literary periodical published by the Israeli Workers Party (Mapam).
Darwish left Israel in 1970 to study in the USSR. He attended the University of Moscow for one year, before moving to Egypt and Lebanon. When he joined the PLO in 1973, he was banned from reentering Israel. In 1995, he returned to attend the funeral of his colleague, Emile Habibi and received a permit to remain in Haifa for four days. Darwish was allowed to settle in Ramallah in 1995, although he said he felt he was living in exile there, and did not consider the West Bank his "private homeland."
Darwish was twice married and divorced. His first wife was the writer Rana Kabbani. In the mid-1980s, he married an Egyptian translator, Hayat Heeni. He had no children. The "Rita" of Darwish's poems was a Jewish woman that he was in love with when he was living in Haifa. The relationship was the subject of the film "Write Down, I Am an Arab" by the filmmaker Ibtisam Mara'ana Menuhin, an Arab Muslim woman who is married to a Jewish man. While such relationships are rare today, they were more common during the Mandate period, and among communists, who were united by class struggle.
Darwish had a history of heart disease, suffering a heart attack in 1984, followed by two heart operations, in 1984 and 1998.
His final visit to Israel was on 15 July 2007, to attend a poetry recital at Mt. Carmel Auditorium in Haifa, in which he criticized the factional violence between Fatah and Hamas as a "suicide attempt in the streets".