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Dedi Simchi, Israel's fire and rescue commissioner, said 12 firefighting planes were deployed along with crews from some 60 fire engines.

"I am glad to say that we managed to prevent entire communities from being burned," Simchi said in a briefing to Israel's internal security minister broadcast live on television, some five hours after the fire erupted.

Emergency services said some four villages were evacuated. At the briefing, Simchi said they no longer faced any "critical danger", although "there are some pockets, where homes have caught fire which we are extinguishing".

He said crews would remain deployed throughout the night and possibly over the next few days to prevent the fire from spreading, amid high temperatures and strong winds.

Fire brigade and police officials said it was too early to determine the cause of the fire.

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