Governance of the camps has also provided sources of tension – between Lebanese and Palestinians, but also among Palestinians themselves. The 1969 Cairo Agreement between Lebanon and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) facilitated the PLO presence in Lebanon. This provided the framework for the establishment of Palestinian popular committees to promote governance within the Palestinian camps. This was to take place under the umbrella of the PLO, which was at that time the federative structure of all Palestinian political parties, armed groups and social institutions in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Before this, camps in Lebanon had been managed according to the state of emergency policy.
Until 1982 the police were not allowed to enter camps without negotiating with the popular committees. The Palestinian resistance accommodated traditional authority structures by building upon customary procedures of dispute settlement. The camps witnessed the emergence of a new elite, whose legitimacy was based on the Palestinian national struggle under the leadership of the PLO. However, this situation changed after 1982 with the departure from Lebanon of PLO cadres and militants, such that participation in the national struggle was no longer sufficient to establish someone as a powerbroker.
After 1982, PLO popular and security committees were forced to dismantle almost entirely, except in the south. These were replaced by committees that were seen by camp populations as weaker and significantly pro-Syrian. This perception was cemented by their lack of financial resources and their lack of legitimacy due to the fact that they were not made up of elected members (as they had previously been), nor were they recognised by the Lebanese authorities. Camp residents instead looked to different actors like imams, local notables and local security leaders to resolve quarrels or problems before going to the police. Refugee camps no longer enjoyed harmonious communitarian structures, while social tensions were aggravated by rapid urbanisation and forced migration.
After the end of the civil war Palestinian armed groups and militias were kept out of the disarmament process. There has been a tacit Palestinian-Lebanese agreement since 1991 that neither the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) nor the Internal Security Forces (ISF) will enter the camps – although they are de facto present through informants and occasionally enter camps, while also controlling entry into the camps. As ‘extra-territorial’ spaces the refugee camps provide shelter for Lebanese and foreign criminals and extremist Islamist groups. In 1999 members of a Sunni radical group based in the Ain al-Hilweh camp killed four judges in the city of Sidon before escaping back to the camp.
Today there is a real crisis of governance in camps. Each is home to dozens of factions: PLO groups, pro-Syrian factions and Islamist militant groups. Popular and security committees seek to govern each camp under the supervision of the PLO or through coalitions of factions. They include appointed representatives from each faction, and are expected to keep the peace, solve internal disputes, provide security, interact with the Lebanese government and aid agencies, and generally administer the camp in coordination with UNRWA.
Popular committees are seen by many Palestinians as unable to, either agree on important issues, coordinate their activities, or protect their constituents from harassment by Lebanese security forces. They are also viewed as doing more to enable factional infighting and bolster patron-client politics than promoting Palestinian unity. Popular committees have scarce resources which hinder them from fulfilling their municipal functions. They lack skilled technical experts on urban regulations, water, sanitation and electricity and neither women nor youth are represented.