JERUSALEM -- Attackers using axes, knives and a pitchfork killed three Israeli soldiers early yesterday after infiltrating a makeshift army camp near the West Bank. Officers said the attackers escaped but identified them as Palestinians from the West Bank or Israel.
It was the largest number of soldiers killed in a single incident inside Israel since 1987 and by far the bloodiest clash since the beginning of Arab-Israeli peace talks in October.
Soldiers and police set up roadblocks and began searching houses in Arab villages while commanders sought an explanation of how the soldiers could have been caught off guard.
The attack occurred shortly after midnight at a training camp established three weeks ago on a hilltop southeast of Haifa, between kibbutz Galed and Umm el Fahm, the largest Arab town in Israel. The border between Israel and the West Bank is about three miles to the south.
Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the army chief of staff, said two of the three slain soldiers were recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union and had received only a few weeks of basic training. Other officers said some of the soldiers at the camp were so new that they were not sure how to use their weapons.
In addition to the three killed, a fourth soldier was injured and reported to be in fair condition.
"It is an extremely serious incident," General Barak said.
An army spokesman said the attackers took four weapons from the camp when they escaped.
Defense Minister Moshe Arens blamed the attack on the Palestine Liberation Organization. Mr. Arens cited a radio broadcast from Syria claiming PLO responsibility as well as "other sources of intelligence."
Reuters, citing Lebanese security sources, said that Israeli warplanes and helicopter gunships attacked two Palestinian refugee camps in south Lebanon early today.
In an apparent retaliation, jets and helicopters fired at least seven rockets into Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp on the outskirts of the port of Sidon, 25 miles south of Beirut. Simultaneously, Israeli helicopters fired seven rockets into the Rashidiyeh camp near the port of Tyre, 48 miles south of Beirut.
Israel's extreme right wing might use the attack to press Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir into taking tougher measures against Palestinians. Extremist parties have been demanding that Mr. Shamir end the series of Arab-Israeli peace talks.
By withdrawing government support, those parties already have forced Mr. Shamir to hold national elections five months early, on June 23. In past campaigns, surveys found that Arab attacks on Israelis seemed to shift votes in favor of the right-wing parties.
Officers investigating yesterday's attack said the three slain soldiers were hacked and stabbed to death. They said one apparently was asleep in his tent, a second was either sleeping or awakened by the attackers and the third was killed with a pitchfork after he ran into the area.
In recent weeks, the army has been searching for Palestinian gunmen who have ambushed and killed four Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since December. Several dozen suspects have been arrested, but no one has been charged.
The last attack on an army base in Israel occurred in November 1987, when a Palestinian crossed from Lebanon into Israel on a hang glider and killed six soldiers.