Israeli troops and tanks have moved into southern Gaza after diplomatic talks failed to secure the release of a soldier abducted by Palestinian fighters.
An Israeli army spokesman confirmed the incursion that occured early on Wednesday shortly after Palestinian security forces stationed near the border town of Rafah said they were ordered to leave by the Israelis.
The offensive followed air strikes overnight that took out three strategic bridges and hit the main power station, causing a huge fire and plunging Gaza City into darkness.
Palestinian witnesses reported the strikes on Tuesday and early on Wednesday, after Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, approved a "limited operation" in the south of Gaza.
Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the operation was aimed at "terrorist infrastructure".
The deployment seems to be the start of a major Israeli incursion into the territory to recover 19 year-old Corporal Gilad Shalit who was captured on Sunday in an attack that left two other soldiers dead.
Tensions have been high ever since with large numbers of Israeli troops deployed to the border and on Monday Olmert promisied a punitive strike if Shalit was not freed.
The air strikes plunged Gaza City
One of the bridges hit by the airstrikes was in central Gaza, another near the town of Deir al-Balah and the third south of Gaza City, the Israeli military and Palestinian security officials said. There were no reports of casualties.
An Israeli military statement said the aim of attacking the bridges was "to impair the ability of the terrorists to transfer the kidnapped soldier".
Palestinian security officials said Gaza would be cut in two by hitting the bridges.
Negotiations to secure Shalit’s release appeared to have failed when the Israeli television station, Channel Two, quoted a source close to Egyptian and French-led mediators saying there was "zero chance" of recovering the soldier through talks.