Gaza: Why Khan Younis could be Israeli ground forces' next target
Israeli ground forces are currently in the north of the strip, including Gaza City. In the first round of fighting, they raided al-Shifa Hospital, the largest medical complex in the enclave. Israel claimed the facility served as the "main headquarters for Hamas's terrorist activity" but has been unable to prove the charge. The Palestinian group and al-Shifa staff have denied a militant command centre exists beneath the facility.
Despite Israel's claims about the hospital, there are indications Khan Younis in southern Gaza could be its ground forces' next major target.
"We haven't yet even come to the heart of this operation," former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told broadcaster Euronews in an interview published online a week before the truce began last month.
"Khan Younis… is the real headquarters of Hamas," he claimed.
Citing several knowledgeable sources, the Financial Times on Friday said Israel is "planning a campaign against Hamas that will stretch for a year or more", adding that the "most intensive phase" of the ground assault would carry on into early next year.
The newspaper said Tel Aviv's strategy "envisages Israeli forces… making an imminent push deep into the south" of Gaza. It said the campaign there would centre on Khan Younis and Rafah.
A move on the southern strip is expected to start while Israel attempts to complete its objectives in the north - a task that a source said will likely take a further two weeks to a month.
However, a senior US official cited by Reuters on Friday said Washington expects there will be no full-scale assault on Khan Younis and Rafah as there was on Gaza City.
Israel is now bombing the south of Gaza, the area to which it began ordering Palestinians to evacuate less than a week after war erupted on 7 October.
The Israeli military dropped leaflets on Friday telling Palestinians to leave four areas in the east of Khan Younis, including Bani Suhaila and Qarara.
The flyer ordered people to head to "the shelters in the Rafah area", adding that the city of Khan Younis was a "dangerous combat zone". It added: "The one who warns is excused."
The leaflet also included a QR code linking to an Arabic-language page on the Israeli army's website that features a map dividing the Gaza Strip into numbered zones. The army's Arabic spokesperson Avichay Adraee published a call for various of these "blocks" in Bani Suhaila and Qarara to be evacuated on Saturday.
The post on social media platform X also referred to the other places mentioned in the leaflet, with the addition of the Ma'n area.
People in the blocks Adraee told to evacuate were instructed to head to the "known shelter centres" in Rafah, with Qarara residents advised they could also go to the "humanitarian area" in al-Mawasi neighbourhood.
Leaflets were previously dropped in eastern Khan Younis in mid-November, before the truce, telling residents to evacuate.
Despite Israel ordering Palestinians to flee parts of Khan Younis, it is not clear where shelter could be found for them.
Israel has repeatedly told residents of north Gaza to evacuate, leaving the south of the strip filled to the brim with about two million people now residing there.
Any reduction in usable space will only add to the difficulties facing the south, where conditions are already grim.
"The humanitarian situation in the south of Gaza is dire and unsafe," Doctors Without Borders said on Thursday, the day before the war resumed.
No matter what measures Israel takes as it comes under mounting international pressure over civilian casualties in Gaza, a ground offensive in the southern strip will lead to a jump in the level of death and destruction experienced there.
Reuters contributed to this story.