The stubby remnants of dead banana trees poke out of the parched ground like wartime tank obstacles, and the once lush orange groves stretching north of Jericho in the arid plain of the Jordan Valley have withered in the 100-degree heat.
Running alongside a narrow road to this forlorn Arab oasis, a concrete irrigation aqueduct built with U.S. aid in 1954 is as dry as the surrounding Judean desert.
Last year, Arab children used to play in the swirling waters of the aqueduct, sliding carelessly down the sluiceway through the citrus groves and under the leaves of the banana trees.
Today the aqueduct is bone dry.
For the 2,000 residents of El Auja, it has been a bitter harvest since their once-abundant sweet-water spring began to dry up in April. They compare it with the devastating droughts of 1936 and 1962, when the spring ran dry and the crops also turned brown in the relentless sun.
But the harvest is even more bitter this year, because alongside the dusty aqueduct is a gleaming steel pipe that snakes from within a few yards of the dried-up spring to six Jewish civilian settlements erected by the Israeli government since the 1967 Six-Day War.
The pipe is cool to the touch, and you can hear the water gurgling inside. At its source, surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence a huge diesel-powered generator drones in the desert stillness, drawing water from a deep well dug by the Israeli government. About a mile away in the foothills of the Judean highland, an identical pump churns around the clock, coursing precious water to the irrigated fields of Israel's strategic Jordan Valley settlements.
The Arab farmers in these parts say -- and the Israeli government vehemently denies -- that the Jewish settlements' pumps have drained El Auja's only spring dry and have caused the collapse of the oasis village. The farmers warn that if the year-long drought continues and the Israelis continue to irrigate their fields, even the historic oasis city of Jericho could eventually dry up and become a near ghost town like El Auja.
The dispute in this remote village appears stalemated. It is indicative of the passions generated by the larger overall issue of water management that is certain to emerge as a major sticking point in detailed negotiations between Egypt and Israel on proposed autonomy for the West Bank. Israel already has given notice that it has no intention of relinquishing water rights in the West Bank, for fear that Arab inhabitants could drive out the Jewish settlers merely with the turn of a valve.
Israeli and Palestinian hydrologists are in disagreement over why El Auja's natural spring has turned dry, but the Arab farmers find little cause for understanding the Israeli view when they drive by the nearby 6,000 acres of rich, irrigated citrus and vegetable fields fed by the Israeli pumps.
There may be even less cause for understanding when those Arab farmers who have accepted jobs on the neighboring Israeli Kibbutzim see the full swimming pool at nearby settlement.
"Try to tell the farmers of this village that their water supply isn't being stolen," said a Palestinian technician. "They can see their crops and they can see the Israeli settlement crops. That's all they need to know."
Actually, it is not easy to find an El Auja farmer these days. An estimated quarter of the village residents have moved to rented houses in Arab villages higher in the Judean hills, presumably because it is cheaper to leave temporarily than to pay to have water trucked to their homes for domestic use.
When the village spring ran dry, the Israeli government installed a tap on its water line to provide drinking water for Arab inhabitants, but the tap is fed by an inch-thick rubber hose with a leak in it and it is a limited source even for domestic use. It could not begin to fill the needs for irrigation.
Two Arab landowners have been allowed to dig private wells and irrigate. But West Bank technicians say only about 30 out of 375 acres of banana trees have survived, and almost all of El Auja's 100 acres of citrus groves have been lost. The farmers estimate that they are losing about $2.7 million a year.
In April, the villagers applied to Israel's water authority for permmission to drill a community well for irrigation. The application has not been approved. Villagers say the Jordanian government is willing to cover all the expenses of such a well.
Israeli government officials, responding to the El Auja farmers' complaints, said that the deep well and pipeline to the surrounding Jewish settlements are not connected to the same aquifer (underground reservoir) as the village's now-dry spring, and that El Auja's water shortage may be traced to the 1962 drought -- before Israel occupied the West Bank.
Moreover, they said everyone in the region is suffering water shortages, noting that the Sea of Galilee -- Israel's main water source -- is at lower levels than ever before, and that the Dead Sea, which is fed by the Jordan River, is so low it can be crossed by foot at one place.
They also argued that the Arab farmers here did not begin developing the underground water sources for irrigation until after Israel began building settlements in the area, and that uncurtailed use of water could cause the destruction of the supply not only for the West Bank but also for Israel proper.
The farmers counter that Jordan had built a well and pump to augment the spring before 1967 specifically for irrigation, and that the Israelis took it over for their own use.
To Palestinian farmers, control of water rights seems also a matter of life and death.
"If they [the Israelis] keep this up they are going to turn thriving Arab farms back into desert. Something has got to give," a Palestinian agricultural expert said.
"We don't begrudge them water for their settlements, even though we oppose the settlements as illegal. But why can't they let the farmers here dig their own wells with their own money?" the Palestinian asked.
He answered his own question, saying, "Because they want to save all the water around here for themselves -- as a hedge for the future, that's why."