(Reuters) - Israel issued a fresh warning to Palestinians in the southern city of Khan Younis to move out of the line of fire and closer to humanitarian aid, in the latest indication that it plans to attack Hamas in south Gaza after subduing the north.
"We're asking people to relocate. I know it's not easy for many of them, but we don't want to see civilians caught up in the crossfire," Mark Regev, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told MSNBC on Friday.
Such a move could compel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled south from the Israeli assault on Gaza City to relocate again, along with residents of Khan Younis, a city of more than 400,000, worsening a dire humanitarian crisis.
Israel vowed to annihilate the Hamas militant group that controls the Gaza Strip after its Oct. 7 rampage into Israel in which its fighters killed 1,200 people and dragged 240 hostages into the enclave.
Since then, Israel has bombed much of Gaza City to rubble, ordered the depopulation of the entire northern half of the narrow strip and left homeless around two-thirds of the enclave's 2.3 million Palestinians. Many of those who have fled fear their displacement could become permanent.
Gaza health authorities raised their death toll on Friday to more than 12,000, 5,000 of them children. The United Nations deems those figures credible, though they are now updated infrequently due to the difficulty of collecting information.
Israel dropped leaflets over Khan Younis telling people to evacuate to shelters, suggesting military operations there were imminent.
Twenty-six Palestinians were killed and 23 injured in an Israeli air strike on two apartments in the city, according to a health official at Nasser Hospital.
Regev said Israeli troops will have to advance into the city to oust Hamas fighters from underground tunnels and bunkers but that no such "enormous infrastructure" exists in less built-up areas to the west.
"I'm pretty sure that they won't have to move again" if they move west, he said, referring to people in the area. "We're asking them to move to an area where hopefully there will be tents and a field hospital."
Because the western areas are closer to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, humanitarian aid could be brought in "as quickly as possible," Regev said.