For the most part, the Middle East is a desert region that lies east of the Mediterranean Sea. It is actually southwestern Asia. It consists largely of many Arab nations and the Jewish state of Israel. The nation of Israel was formed in 1948 through the efforts of the United Nations. This started a war. The Arab nations invaded Israel, but they were thrown back. The two sides agreed to a truce - a stopping of the fighting. Ralph Bunche, an American working for the United Nations, arranged the truce. For this work, Bunche became the first black to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

During the fighting of 1948, thousands of Arabs fled Israel. Today, more than 2 million of them live in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and other Arab countries. They are refugees, people who have fled their homeland. Many of these Palestinians, as they call themselves, live in camps supported by the United Nations. (Palestine is the ancient name for the area that is now Israel and Jordan.) Others work in nearby Arab countries.

Many Palestinians do not recognize Israel's right to exist. They want a Palestinian state for themselves, formed from land now held by Israel. Some Palestinians use violence to reach their goals. They attack Israelis. Sometimes they attack other Arabs who disagree with them.

The Middle East is important to the world. First, the Suez Canal is located there. The canal is very important. It provides a short route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Without it, ships going between Europe and Asia would have to travel all the way around Africa. Second, the region has the richest oil deposits in the world. The United States, the nations of Western Europe, and Japan need the oil for their homes and factories. At present, American companies work the oil fields with the permission of the Arab rulers. The Soviet Union also had a deep interest in all of the Middle East. It tried to extend its power in this area for many years. Syria, Iraq, and Southern Yemen received much help from the Soviet Union.

In 1973, Egypt and Syria suddenly attacked Israel. The Egyptian and Syrian troops made some gains before they were stopped. The Soviet Union supplied the Arab side with arms. The United States supported Israel. The fighting lasted three weeks before the UN called for another cease-fire. A UN peace-keeping force moved into the area between Egypt and the Israeli troops. New cease-fire lines were drawn through the efforts of Henry Kissinger, the American secretary of state.

In the war of 1973, the other Arab nations found a new and effective way to help Egypt and Syria. They cut down on their oil shipments to the Western industrial nations. They placed an embargo on oil to the United States. This means that they did not allow their oil to be shipped to the United States. They also raised the price of oil. The Arab methods were successful. Rather than be without oil, most industrial nations moved closer to the Arab position. Within a few months the Arabs once again began shipping oil to the United States. However, the price for this oil is continually rising. Much of the Western world's wealth is being turned over to the Arabs to pay for the oil.

Anwar EI-Sadat, the leader of Egypt, made a historic visit to Israel in 1977. He and Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister, agreed to try to work out a plan for peace In the area. Encouraged by President Carter, the two leaders held talks at Camp David in Maryland in 1978. In 1979 the two nations signed a peace treaty. The Israelis agreed to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for the promise of peace. Egypt agreed to allow Israel to use the Suez Canal. They also agreed to work together to help solve the Palestinian problem.

The other Arab nations were angry about the treaty. Except for Egypt, no Arab state recognizes Israel. That means they have no official dealings with Israel. They want Israel to give up all the land it captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. They also demand the setting up of a Palestinian state in what is now Israel. Nevertheless, Egypt and Israel are carrying out the treaty. Israel has returned the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt has kept the peace and Israeli ships now use the Suez Canal.

The Middle East continued to boil over. In January 1979, the people of Iran overthrew their ruler, the shah. He fled the country. In November 1979, a group of young Iranians overran the American embassy in Teheran, Iran's capital city. The 63 Americans inside were taken as hostages, or captives. This act of terrorism was supported by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the new religious leader of Iran. The terrorists shortly let a few Americans go, reducing the number of captives to 53. However, they said they would not release the remainder until the United States returned the shah to Iran for trial. (He had gone to the United States for medical treatment.) The shah died in 1980. The Americans were finally let go on January 20,1981, the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the new president.