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For Israelis, a new point of contention: What time is it?

JERUSALEM (AP) — When Israel moved its clocks back early Sunday in preparation for the holy fast day of Yom Kippur, people in this high-decibel society found something new to disagree about: the time of day.

The end of daylight savings time here came more than a month and a half before most European countries, bringing a winter-like onset of darkness in early evening — even though the Mediterranean summer is still very much in full swing — and sparking a debate about the role of religion in national politics.

Many Israelis say the move, aimed at making life easier for Jews observing Yom Kippur, this weekend, unnecessarily disrupts life and costs the economy millions of dollars. Activists launched an Internet protest petition calling on Israelis to unilaterally stick to summer time, and more than 230,000 people signed.

"This change causes a lot of damage to the people of Israel," said Nehemia Shtrasler, an economic-affairs columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz. "You disconnect from the Western world, where the clock moves on Oct. 31, and nothing matches — flights, imports and exports, appointments. It's a mess."

The move to winter time after the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, which just ended, and before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest date of the year, which involves a sundown-to-sundown fast starting this Friday, has been standard practice here for decades.

Orthodox religious parties, which have always held key swing votes in Israel's political system, are behind the time change, wanting to decrease the number of waking hours for those fasting. Although the length of the fast doesn't change, the sun sets an hour earlier with the winter clock, shortening the more difficult end of the fast.

The arrangement was enshrined in law in 2005 as part of a compromise with secular parties. Every year the clock change draws mild protest from Israelis who resent religious influence, but this year the change has become particularly contentious because the Jewish holidays fall earlier than usual.

Secular politicians criticized the move, and a group of activists launched the Internet petition suggesting Israelis simply ignore it. "We call on the citizens of the country to disregard the clock change and continue to observe summer time until the end of October," reads the petition.

"Winter time shortens parents' quality time with their children, increases the danger of car accidents because of more driving in the dark, warps the local time in comparison to the time in Europe, and costs the Israeli economy hundreds of millions of shekels," according to the Web site.

Shtrasler, the economic columnist, put the actual cost at closer to $5 million. This is due to a shorter work day in construction and other branches of the economy and a rise in electricity use as lights are turned on earlier.

But the issue touches a raw nerve in Israel that goes beyond money to long-standing resentment about the influence wielded by a religious minority.

In Israel, Orthodox rabbis control marriage, divorce and burial, and many in the country's secular majority resent the ultra-Orthodox for generally not serving in the military and choosing to study Jewish law rather than work.

"You went to bed in an enlightened Western country and woke up in a dark theocracy," columnist Uri Misgav wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronot.

On Sunday, a popular program on Army Radio interviewed Roni Hefetz, who said his venture capital firm unilaterally decided not to move back the clock. For the host it was 9:20 a.m.; Hefetz insisted it was actually 10:20 a.m.

"Didn't you start your program an hour late?" Hefetz joked.

"We are continuing to behave as if the clock never changed," Hefetz said, though he admitted that in deference to the official time he had not dropped his children off at school an hour early.

Israel's government has shown no signs of responding to the public mood.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai, leader of the powerful ultra-Orthodox Shas party said that as a Jewish country Israel was simply different. "The rest of the world doesn't have Yom Kippur," he told reporters Sunday. "What's wrong with us doing something that will help all of the people of Israel on Yom Kippur?"

The fracas about the time inside Israel comes on top of existing confusion between Israel and the Palestinians, who moved their own clocks back a month ago to make life easier for Muslims fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

That change meant that for the past month the time in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem was an hour behind the time in the Jewish neighborhoods of the same city.

Egypt also moved its clocks back at the beginning of the Muslim holy month but then moved them back last week.