JERUSALEM — Clearly upset over an apparent security lapse that paved the way for the bloodiest guerrilla infiltration here in nearly a decade, Israeli leaders Thursday promised a thorough investigation into the incident and weighed possible military responses in an extraordinary Cabinet meeting.
The infiltration late Wednesday, in which a Palestinian gunman flew from Lebanon to an Israeli army base near Kiryat Shemona using a motorized hang glider, left six soldiers dead and seven wounded and spread gloom through all northern Israel.
The gunman was finally killed by return fire inside the army camp, and an apparent accomplice who landed short of the border in a second hang glider was discovered and shot to death several hours later in Israel's self-styled "security zone" in southern Lebanon.
'Shouldn't Have Happened'
"The results of the operation were very severe from our point of view," a somber Maj. Gen. Ehud Barak, deputy chief of staff, told newsmen Thursday evening. "This should not have happened at all and should not recur."
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a Syrian-based splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Organization, issued a communique in Damascus claiming responsibility for the attack and praising the dead guerrillas for waging a "heroic battle."
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who visited the site Thursday afternoon, blamed Syria for facilitating the attack. "It is clear that those who have claimed responsibility could not do this without the sponsorship of and help from Syria," he told northern settlers, who had spent the previous night confined to bomb shelters while a massive army search sought possible additional infiltrators.
Earlier, Shamir had called an extraordinary meeting of the 10-man so-called Inner Cabinet to consider the incident. But he refused to comment on how Israel might respond.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who rushed to the scene early Thursday, promised a full-scale investigation to determine how the gunman managed to get into the camp despite the fact that troops in the security zone had alerted their commanders at least a half hour earlier of a suspected airborne infiltrator headed south.
Other army bases and kibbutzim were apparently already on alert by the time the guerrilla flew across the border.
After landing across a road from the army camp, the gunman, said to be a Palestinian in his early 20s and wearing olive green fatigues, first ambushed an army van on its way toward Kiryat Shemona, killing the officer-driver and wounding his passenger, a woman soldier.
It was unclear why the gunfire did not alert soldiers at the camp, only a few score yards away. Other mysteries include how the guerrilla was then able to race across open ground around the well-lighted perimeter of the camp and through a guarded gate without being intercepted. Once inside, he was reportedly able to fire about 60 rounds from his automatic rifle before being cut down by a bullet in the head.
Interviewed on army radio, the unidentified Israeli soldier who killed the guerrilla after being wounded himself gave this account: "A grenade exploded. . . . I thought he was a soldier, but then he fired at me. I fired at him . . . and he fell down."
Four of the six soldiers killed were inside a tent playing cards and were slain when they rushed out to see what was happening, an army officer said.
"For some reason, this terrorist was not killed before he entered the camp," said a puzzled Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron, the military chief of staff. "As far as I understand, (the camp guard) did not react properly, but these issues are still being investigated."
The base involved is used by a special military branch called Nahal, or "Fighting Pioneer Youth." Nahal units are made up of young Israelis who combine their mandatory army service (three years for men, two for women) with work on agricultural settlements, usually in border areas or in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Shomron rejected suggestions there was some flaw in Israel's aerial defenses along the northern border. "We believe that aerial defense is well taken care of, but obviously there is no foolproof system," the general said.
He said attacks like the one Wednesday night "are in effect suicide operations," with no more than a "theoretical" chance for the attacker to survive.
Barak said it was "clear to us that the fact (the gunmen) encountered Israeli soldiers rather than civilians was purely accidental. They came to attack any Israeli they could find--whoever they met first."
Abul Fida Omran, leader of Popular Front forces in southern Lebanon, told a news conference in Sidon on Thursday that "this heroic operation was carried out to confront the calls for an international conference" to settle the Middle East conflict.
Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat ordered "all Palestinian forces in Lebanon on full alert" against possible Israeli reprisals for the attack.
At Sidon's Ein el Hilwa refugee camp, 30 miles north of the Israeli border, hundreds of Palestinian fighters reportedly manned anti-aircraft guns, anticipating a retaliatory raid by Israeli jet fighters. Israeli warplanes have already carried out 22 raids in southern Lebanon so far this year, killing more than 100 people.