By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel dropped its annual simulation of a missile attack and held its first major earthquake drill on Sunday instead, but officials insisted the country remained as ready as ever for the possibility of a war with arch-foe Iran.
School children, civil servants and others participating in the "Turning Point 6" exercise were urged to flee outdoors if possible as radio and TV channels broadcast tremor alerts. In previous years, people were told to go to household bomb shelters in order to flee an imaginary missile attack.
"We want people to run into homes during a missile attack, and we want people to run out of homes during an earthquake," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after he and fellow ministers evacuated their weekly cabinet meeting.
The change in format comes at a time when hostile rhetoric over Tehran's disputed nuclear program has waned, with both Israel and the United States about to hold elections and Western powers pursuing ever-stronger sanctions against Iran.
But Israeli officials denied the drill signaled an easing of their stance on Iran.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the exercise readied Israel for more than "something that happens once in 5,000 years", but for what he called "the very real scenarios" of missile strikes.
Other officials emphasized the risk of an earthquake given the abutting Syria-Africa rift along Israel's eastern frontier.
"We understand that earthquakes will certainly happen. The question is when," Mickey Tessler, a brigadier-general in Israel's military Homefront Command, told Army Radio.
"It is very important to emphasize that whoever is ready for earthquakes perforce increases his readiness level for various events, including wartime events," he said.
Tessler said people should respond "in seconds" due to Israel's lack of seismic early warning systems but another official said work on technologies that could eventually detect tremors up to half a minute in advance was underway.
"NO LINK TO MILITARY MANOEUVRES"
Turning Point 6 was to feature simulations of 5.4- and 7.1- scale tremors as well as a tsunami drenching the coast, where most of Israel's population and industry is centered.
Israelis on the lower floors of buildings were instructed to find safe ground outside, and those on higher storeys to shelter in fortified rooms, with doors kept open, or under sturdy furniture.
Officials said that Israel had once adhered to a policy followed in other earthquake-prone countries for people to take cover indoors rather than venture outside.
"However, upon review, we found because buildings in Israel tend to be made of heavier materials such as bricks, it would be better to advise those who can to go outdoors," Alon Rozen, an ex-director general of the civil defence ministry, said.
The drill coincided with Israeli-hosted joint missile-defence maneuvers with U.S. forces. That three-week drill, "Austere Challenge 2012", is unrelated to Turning Point 6, an Israeli military spokeswoman said.
Israel has hinted it could resort to military force to deny Iran the means to make nuclear arms - which Tehran denies seeking - and has made similar threats to attack Syria's chemical arsenal. Either action could draw retaliatory missiles against the Jewish state from Iran, Syria and Islamist militants in Lebanon and Gaza.
(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Osborn)