My opinion, contrary to a lot of people who want to find Israel present in Canaan in the 14th century B.C.E., is that the habiru of the Amarna letters are not Hebrews. The equation of the two seems like wishful thinking, because you really have to stretch things to make the accounts or atmosphere in Joshua and Judges fit the Amarna letters. Some habiru may have affiliated with Israel at some time, but there is no connection between the word “habiru” or, more correctly “apiru”, and Hebrew.
What the discussions about the habiru often never mention is the verb form of the word. In the Mari documents (3rd and early 2nd millenia B.C.E.) there is a verb which means to migrate or immigrate. So you could say that a habiru is someone who habirued, who became displaced and left their home. At Mari there was a legal distinction between a habiru and a deserter or run-away slave. There was a legal obligation to extradite deserters and run-away slaves. But, if you could establish that you were merely a habiru refugee, then you could stay.
Later on, closer to the Amarna period, treaties began to include clauses requiring the return of refugees as well as deserters and run-away slaves. Harboring refugees was sometimes a cause of war. The reason for this is that refugees often became governments or even armies in exile and returned home to make trouble. These refugees came from city states–not so much from bedouin-like tribes.
The Idrimi inscription (about 16th century B.C.E. events) contains an example of this. This inscription was found on a statue buried in a temple in Alalakh in far northern Syria. Idrimi was the founder of a dynasty of vassal kings at Alalakh. His story sounds similar to the biblical stories of Joseph and David. He was a younger brother exiled in another country who made good (as a fortune-teller interpreting the flight of birds and the innards of sheep) and became a ruler. There is reason to think that the statue came generations after Idrimi’s time and that it is what I would call prestige literature. That means we should look out for exaggeration and spin.
However, it is based on some facts. It tells how Idrimi spent years in exile among the habiru in Canaan. He found among them other refugees with similar political interests. He gathered them around himself and built ships and raised an army in order to take power in Alalakh.
This kind of development probably accounts for the fact that at Mari the attitude toward the habiru is mostly neutral or favorable, while in the Amarna letters it is always hostile. The habiru had become dangerous because they were interested in the overthrow of established regimes. They made alliances with other troublemakers. In the Amarna letters the habiru seem to be anti-Egyptian and acting as supporters of the interests of the Hittites and the kingdom of Amurru.
They were likely displaced from Canaanite city states, people banished from their cities by previous Egyptian military campaigns who hoped a rising Hittite power would check Egypt and allow their restoration in Canaan.
I just don’t find anything in the biblical texts to put Israel in this context. Israel seems to have a more pastoral and nomadic background. Also the kinship system of habiru was weakened. They became more individualized and held more fluid loyalties. Israel seems to arise from strong clans. The biblical picture is that exiled strong men sometimes used habiru troops (Judges 9:4, 11:3 and 1 Samuel 22:2). But these displaced people were outside the Israelite mainstream.
A translation of the Idrimi inscription: Idrimi.pdf