barack obama

United States President Barack Obama addressed the Muslim world recently in an eagerly awaited speech. Here is the background to the Middle East conflict. In today's Listening Plus, Sara Yin talks to the South China Morning Post's Ian Young about why the speech was important, and how it was received

For more than 1,000 years, the Middle East has been an area of tension. Since the discovery of oil in 1908 in Persia and the creation of Israel by Britain and America in 1947, these tensions have often bubbled over into war.

The Gulf states in the Middle East sit on the world's largest and most accessible oil reserves. The region is also heavily militarised as well as being one of the most religiously significant. This potent mix has led to every influential country taking an interest in the area.

Israel was established as a homeland for Jews after the second world war. It was created by partitioning the land around the River Jordan. This created two states divided not only by a new border but by religion. While the Jews agreed to the UN plan, the Arabs did not. This led to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, in which 800,000 Palestinians were displaced. This exodus of people created what is known in politics as the 'Palestine problem'.

From the 1950s onwards, the world's leading oil user and military power, the US, became the stabilising force in the Middle East. Although it was allied with Arab countries surrounding Israel, Washington has always been a closer ally of Jerusalem. Its pro-Israeli stance in the UN has made many countries unhappy with its actions. All attempts by various US presidents over the years have failed to secure permanent peace and stability in the region. Bill Clinton had the most success securing the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, but these have since failed. too.

Following 9/11 and the American-British invasion of Iraq on false information about weapons manufacturing, and then Afghanistan, relations between the Islamic world and the west have been very tense. President George W. Bush did very little to ease these problems and consequently there has been a rise in Islamic militancy in the region.

The main problem areas are the West Bank and Gaza Strip - both Palestinian but divided by Israel in the middle. On both borders Israel has built long concrete walls to aid its security. But it is the 703km West Bank barrier that is most controversial as it effectively cuts off what is behind it. Israelis believe the walls have reduced the number of suicide bombers entering their country from the Palestinian territories. Former president Bush supported Israel's ability to secure itself.

Added to this the Palestinian Liberation Organisation had been shooting missiles from southern Lebanon into Israel for a number of years. In 2006 this escalated into the month-long Lebanon War after Hezbollah, a militant political party based in Lebanon, killed three Israeli soldiers. Israel's response was tough. While it was hit with about 4,000 rockets from Lebanon, in response it sent its air force on 12,000 combat missions, its navy fired 2,500 shells and its army 100,000. It destroyed parts of Lebanon and killed more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians. This reaction was widely criticised by the international community. But then-president Bush maintained Hezbollah started the war and had consequently suffered defeat at the hands of Israel, angering many other countries.

President Obama sought to address these issues in his speech and mend some of the wounds the War on Terror created.