The Egged bus cooperative, Israel's main public transport company, has apparently secretly begun to operate buses on Shabbat, Haaretz has learned. Buses Nos. 370 and 380, on the Be'er Sheva-Tel Aviv route, depart Be'er Sheva before the Sabbath is over. The early departures are not featured on the company's Web site.

At 4:30 P.M. Saturday, the first bus from Be'er Sheva's central bus station departed for Tel Aviv. Two others departed 30 minutes later, despite the fact that Shabbat officially ended at 5:26 P.M.

The Nos. 370 and 380 routes were operated by Egged until about 10 years ago, when they were privatized and thereafter shared by Egged and the Metropolin company.

An Egged customer service representative told Haaretz the first bus for Tel Aviv departs Be'er Sheva on Saturdays no earlier than 6 P.M.

In response, one of the company's drivers told Haaretz: "I guess they don't want to upset the ultra-Orthodox. Buses leave Be'er Sheva an hour and a half before the end of the Shabbat every Saturday."

Be'er Sheva council member Ofer Karadi (Shas), told Haaretz: "If this is happening, I protest it very strongly. We, the ultra-Orthodox community, have placed our trust in the Egged company, and if this information is correct, I will raise this with our rabbinic council as soon as possible. We may have to resort to strong measures to counter this. We will do everything to prevent any affront to the feelings of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox populations in Be'er Sheva or elsewhere."

In a statement, the Egged management said the buses, operated jointly with Metropolin, leave half an hour after the end of Shabbat, in accordance with the schedule posted on the Internet.