The Biden administration has warned Israel that widening its conflict against the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah would risk drawing in Iran, even as Israeli officials said last week they had completed preparations for an operation if it were required.

According to an Axios report quoting two unnamed senior US officials, the administration has told Israel it does not believe “a limited war” in Lebanon or a “small regional war” is a realistic option because it would be difficult to end and be likely to spin out of control.

The warning comes amid mounting speculation that Israel may be considering launching a substantial operation against Hezbollah in the coming months, despite having been dissuaded by Washington from a similar move at the beginning of the war against Hamas eight months ago.

Tensions have increased notably in the past week as a procession of senior Israeli figures have visited the north of their country to talk up preparations for a war in Lebanon after images of widespread wildfires in the region sparked by Hezbollah fire.

The chief of the armed forces suggested “preparations” were complete and that a decision to launch an offensive might be imminent. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, warned of the possibility of an “intense campaign”.

The far-right security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has visited the largely deserted northern town of Kiryat Shmona to call for the “destruction of Hezbollah.”

That the flurry of high-profile visits to the north may be more than political posturing was underlined by the announcement last week that Israel is once more increasing the cap on the number of reservists it can call up by an additional 50,000.

What is clear amid all the speculation is that the situation on Israel’s northern front has rapidly become as problematic as Gaza, where the Israel Defense Forces have become bogged down.

While Israel’s leaders went into the war determined to forge a new strategic hold over Gaza, the length of the conflict and IDF’s continuing failures against Hamas has imposed its own reality.

In a grand irony of history, Israel – which has sought in various ways to create a security buffer zone in southern Lebanon since the 1980s either through war, occupation and diplomacy – has now woken up to the fact that since the war began Hezbollah has created a security zone of sorts in Israel’s north.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have quit the north, either under evacuation orders from the areas closest to the border or voluntarily from a wider area.

Some 40% of those who have left have wondered about a future in a region whose economy has been hard hit.

While much of the focus of Israeli criticism of the government’s handling of the wider war has been on its inability to meet its professed war aims in Gaza, the situation in the north has come into increasingly sharp relief.

Israel has tried to manage the conflict on the northern border as contingent on the continued fighting in Gaza, but the sheer length of the conflict has created its own dynamics.

While Israel’s strategic doctrine for the last decade envisaged fighting very short, intense and decisive wars against Hezbollah and Hamas, the current conflict has been neither short nor decisive.

Hezbollah considers the conflict thus far as a success, despite IDF claims to have inflicted damage on the Lebanese militant movement.

The militant group’s losses have been relatively low for the scale of the impact on Israel it has achieved. And while tens of thousands of Lebanese have been displaced from their side of the border, the political consequences have not been symmetric.

Equally worrying for Israel is that Hezbollah, long-regarded as an effective and highly adaptable military force, has been able to use the war to test and fine-tune its capabilities.

In 2006, it used anti-tank missiles effectively against Israeli armour. In the current conflict Hezbollah has made increasingly effective use of small kamikaze drones, including twice in the last week, in ways that appear able to outsmart Israel’s extensive countermeasures on the border.

All of this appears to have led to a growing realisation in the IDF and in Israel’s political leadership that they are being boxed into a long-term trap.

Short of a comprehensive negotiated deal over the northern border – which Hezbollah has said it is open to in the long run – the failure of a UN-mandated ceasefire agreement from 2006 that envisaged a pull-back by Hezbollah from the border, means that even if the war in Gaza were to stop the threat has been transformed in the north.

In recent days the Israeli media, both left and right, has focused increasingly on the prospect of a war with Hezbollah: what that would look like and whether it is now inevitable.

“The focus on the southern theatre diverts attention from the truly troubling theatre – Lebanon,” wrote Yoav Limor in the rightwing Israel Hayom on Friday.

In the leftwing Haaretz, the columnist Amos Harel offered an equally grim prognosis, warning that an “exhausted” Israel is on “brink of multi-dimensional failure” even as it risks widening the conflict.

“Israel is likely to find itself in a war without international legitimacy … without solid US support and with a burned out, weary army that is struggling to maintain orderly supplies of munitions and spare parts.”

Whether the talk of widening war is real or not – or simply a distraction amid threats by the Israeli minister Benny Gantz to quit Netanyahu’s wartime coalition by the weekend and the unresolved ceasefire talks around Gaza – the risks, on the eight-month anniversary of Hamas’s 7 October attack – continue to increase.