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For some, bomb-proof room is best option

MA'ALOT-TARSHIHA, ISRAEL -- The siren began wailing at about 6:30 last evening and Regine Cohen took cover again in her reinforced bomb-proof room. Explosions from incoming Hezbollah rockets landing nearby rattled the windows for the next two hours.

More than 160 rockets fell in northern Israel during the day, and one of them ignited a fire in fields not far from Cohen's home, quickly extinguished by local firefighters.

By now, four weeks into the daily rocket attacks on her home town from the unseen Hezbollah launchers beyond the mountains, Cohen no longer suffers from the panic attacks that gripped her at the start. But she's a prisoner in her picturesque house overlooking the spectacular Wadi Kziv and Montfort Crusader castle next to Israel's northern border with Lebanon.

``I haven't been out for four weeks, I feel like I've lost control of my own life," said Cohen, trying to relax between rocket barrages by playing Spanish guitar on her porch. ``It's like someone coming in and deciding to take over your home, the place where you should feel most secure. It's as if they are taking away your very energy."

Of more than 2,000 Hezbollah rockets fired at Israel in the past month, so many have fallen in and around Ma'alot-Tarshiha, a mostly Jewish hillside dormitory town and twin Arab village of some 22,000, that the residents have lost count. Several houses have been destroyed. Last Thursday, three Arab teenagers died when a rocket hit them as they tried to take cover in an open field.

Unlike most of their neighbors, Cohen and her husband, Paul, a retired interior designer, decided to stay in their home. This should be high season for their business -- they rent out a romantic summer cottage on the grounds of their house -- but the tourists have disappeared.

Their regular clients have besieged the Cohens with concerned phone calls and invitations to head south for the duration of the war, but they refuse to leave. They stay close to home, close to the bomb-proof room that doubles as their bedroom. They shop hastily, during the two hours the town's remaining supermarket is open each day. The other was hit by a rocket. Visiting friends bring vital supplies.

``We have six cats who are like our children," said Paul. ``We couldn't leave them. And who would water the garden?"

A neighbor, Marc Arenstein, decided to move out of Ma'alot-Tarshiha five days after the bombing started. For health reasons, he couldn't stay in the dank, musty, barely inhabitable 12-by-14-foot bomb shelter he was supposed to share with four other families, and his daughter couldn't stand being down there. So they moved into a relative's vacation home in Jerusalem.

Arenstein, manager of the information center and head of international relations for the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Haifa, went back to work after a few days in Jerusalem -- a three-hour commute -- and spends one night a week in Ma'alot-Tarshiha.

``I come back once a week to take care of things like feeding the parakeet and watering the lawn and plants," he said. ``When we left I didn't plan on being away for a month. . . The bills are piling up. Last week the windows were blown out by a rocket. I have to make sure they're repaired so we don't come back to find animals in the house."

``I want this place to be like a home when we return, not like a barn that fell apart," he said.

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