Bethlehem, Occupied West Bank – In the early hours, as most of the residents of Beit Jibrin refugee camp are fast asleep, a group of young men stand guard, keeping a lookout over the entrances and narrow alleyways of the dilapidated camp they call home.
Using social media apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook, they send each other private text and photo updates from their positions throughout the camp, and post messages to their public Facebook groups.
While most nights pass without incident, the young men are ready for the chaos of an Israeli incursion.
Beit Jibrin camp, known to locals as Azza camp, lies only a few hundred metres from Israel’s separation wall and an Israeli military base. The frequency of arrest raids has skyrocketed during the past six months of upheaval in the occupied West Bank and Israel, with hundreds of Palestinians jailed, according to prisoners’ rights group Addameer.
While cities and villages across the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been targets of such raids, refugee camps are hotbeds of political activity, and Israeli forces rarely enter such neighbourhoods without a fight.
“Social media is the way we organise,” M, one of the young men who stands guard in Beit Jibrin camp, told Al Jazeera. “It’s the safest way to stay anonymous and still stay connected, so we can be prepared to challenge the Israelis.”
According to M, even his closest friends have no idea that he is one of the administrators on the camp’s Facebook page , 24 Hour Azza Camp News. The page has more than 4,000 likes – four times the number of camp residents.
The page warns residents of Israeli raids, which mostly happen in the dead of night. Page administrators tell their followers where Israeli soldiers are entering, which houses they stop at, how many soldiers are present, and any other information that might be pertinent.
The Facebook page for me is a weapon; it's a weapon that they can't stop.
“Most of the people who run the page with me have served time in Israeli prison, and we trust each other,” M said. “We’ve known each other since we were in school, and if one of us gets arrested or can’t help on the page any more, we recruit someone else we trust completely to come in and help.”
What these young men do is dangerous. If a page administrator was exposed, he would surely be arrested, either on unrelated charges or under administrative detention , M said.
“We are incredibly careful,” he said. “What we do might seem like something small, but it is an arm of the resistance.”
Ahmad Butto, a Palestinian information security specialist, told Al Jazeera that contact through social media is more secure than using phone calls or texts. The messaging app WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption, making it more difficult for a third party to hack into a private conversation, he said.
“These social media applications opened new doors for privacy,” Butto said. “While tracking phone calls and text messages is old technology, hacking into some of these newer means of communication is exceedingly difficult and time-consuming. It’s also easier to stay anonymous.”
Because West Bank refugee camps are overcrowded, the young people in charge of keeping a lookout have a physical advantage as well: They know every narrow alleyway, home and rooftop. “We know the camp like no one else,” M said. “If Israeli forces even think to enter the camp, we see them before they could ever know, and we spread the message so people can get ready.”
To “get ready” involves a variety of things, he said: “Women get up and change so they’re dressed appropriately if Israelis come into their home, and when people are ready for the army, they know to be awake and listen for a knock on their door so they can open it before forces blow it off its hinges. If someone knows Israel is looking to arrest them, they’ll get out before they have the chance … Early warnings are key.”
While most use the social media warnings to help protect themselves, some young men keep tabs on these pages to better organise clashes, taking to rooftops armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails when they know Israeli forces are present.
D, a young man from Dheisha refugee camp – which is home to 15,000 Palestinian refugees – said he uses the camp’s Facebook page as a means of resistance. The page, which in some ways resembles a news feed, has more than 34,000 likes.
The page is a community effort, he added, noting that during raids, the page sometimes gets dozens of private messages in a matter of minutes, as locals send the group photos and updates of what they can see from their windows.
“We can’t be everywhere at once, and we can’t risk having too many people inside the operation, but the whole community helps keep us updated on their area of the camp, without ever knowing who exactly they are helping,” D said.
“We know everything; we always know where the soldiers are in the city. The soldiers can’t enter Bethlehem without us telling everyone where they are and how many of them are there – but without social media, this would be impossible.”
Additional reporting by Abed al-Qaisi