Three Israeli soldiers were shot and killed by at least one Palestinian gunman as they patrolled a road near a Jewish settlement south of the West Bank city of Hebron tonight, Israeli authorities said. It was the fourth attack in the area in the last 21/2 months in which military personnel have been killed.

The three soldiers were "on a routine patrol guarding the road" near the small settlement of Beit Haggai when they were shot, military officials said. It was unknown whether more than one assailant was involved in the attack. Soldiers were combing the area for suspects, a military spokesman said.

"When we arrived . . . all three were dead and the only thing left for us to do was to confirm their death," a member of the Magen David Adom medical rescue team told Israel Radio. "They suffered multiple bullet wounds."

The medic told the radio network that the three soldiers appeared to have been shot at close range.

The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which associates itself with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, both asserted responsibility for the attack.

Tensions between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and settlers have escalated since Palestinian gunmen killed nine soldiers and border patrol officers and three settlement security guards in a dramatic ambush just outside the settlement of Kiryat Arba on the eastern edge of Hebron on Nov. 15.

That attack and the Israeli military's subsequent reoccupation of Hebron initiated a new cycle of killings by Palestinians and retribution by Israeli authorities, resulting in Palestinian deaths, in what has long been one of the West Bank's most volatile cities. Hebron is the only city where Jewish settlements are located within the urban boundaries, exacerbating the potential for violence.

Sixteen Israeli military members have been killed in the Hebron area in four incidents spanning the last 21/2 months. In addition to the three soldiers killed tonight and the nine killed on Nov. 15 , two soldiers were shot while on guard near the Tomb of the Patriarchs on Dec. 12 and two off-duty soldiers were among four religious students shot in a dining hall at the Otniel settlement south of Hebron on Dec. 27.

On Friday, a 34-year-old Israeli member of an anti-Arab organization was killed by gunmen when he opened the front door of his house in an outpost north of the settlement of Kiryat Arba.

The Israeli military has responded by arresting dozens of Palestinians, demolishing the houses of alleged militants and imposing stringent curfews on Palestinians. Last week the military shut down the city's two universities, accusing them of assisting in the "recruitment, training and instruction" of militant activists.