Rebellions and disturbances in Canaan built to a crescendo late in the Amarna period. Gangs of habiru may have played a role in these rebellions and disturbances. But it is hard to know just what that role was and who the habiru were. Part of the reason for this is that the petty kings who wrote to the Pharaoh lied. They would say, “May the king be informed . . .” But the information they sent was contradictory and self-serving.
Also “habiru” grew to mean more than just gangs of uprooted people who were possibly mercenary warriors. In EA 288, the king of Jerusalem reports an outrage by “servants who had become [or were joined to] the habiru.” The king of Gath in EA 335 reports the same incident, but says nothing about habiru. He only mentions “rebels”.
Underlying the reports is a feudal structure of city states with “servants” or serfs who rebelled. In EA 271 the king of Gezer asks for troops against the habiru, but his main worry is that his own serfs will kill him. Rebellions may have been encouraged by bands of habiru invaders. Sometimes, though, the petty kings, who were desperately trying to get Egypt to send troops, probably exaggerated the strength of the habiru by referring to all the rebels as though they were habiru.
I understand the reason so many try to say that the habiru were the Hebrews. If they were not Hebrews, then there looks to be no mention at all of Israel in the Amarna letters, which give us so much background about the situation in Canaan in the late Bronze Age. This absence of Israel does not work well with some scenarios about the exodus and conquest, especially those that want Israel present before the population explosion in the central hill country after the Bronze Age Collapse.
But I think the case is very weak. Recently translated Hittite documents show hostility toward Egypt and trouble-making in Egyptian territory in the 14th century. Habiru meant displaced people who survived by hiring themselves out in service to others. Some have suggested that the word means something like “clients”. When they were warriors, habiru seem to have been mercenaries.
So a likely scenario would be that the habiru of the Amarna letters were mercenaries in service of the Hittites. They seem to have operated in bands of 40 or 50 troops.
If they were Joshua’s Hebrews there should be some evidence of them entering the land from across the Jordan. Labayu, king of Shechem, in EA 254 denies that he knows his son was consorting with the habiru. Labayu is lying. So there probably were some habiru with Mutbaal who became king at Pella across the Jordan.
However, habiru warriors often have a base in the wooded hills of Lebanon. Habiru attacked from there during Pharaoh Seti I’s expedition into Palestine (one of his Beth Shean inscriptions). The Idrimi inscription tells how Idrimi lived in exile among the habiru in Lebanon and recruited them to help him seize power at Alalakh. And the Amarna letters about the situation in the north and the Amorite rebellion against Egypt give a role to the habiru.
So most of the evidence would have the habiru coming from the north.
I recently took notice of another interesting fact. In EA 298 the ruler of Gezer says:
Let the king, my lord, be aware that my younger brother, has rebelled against me and has entered Muhhazu, and he has given over his two hands to the leader of the ‘Apiru. . . (see here. “given over his two hands” means pledged allegiance or made covenant.)
The ‘Apiru (habiru) and their leader are in Muhhazu. We can’t be sure where that is. But I tend to think it is the place later known as Yavne Yam (see here), a harbor on the Mediterranean. This is because the name Muhhazu seems to refer to a port. In Arabic mahuz a-tani means “second harbor” This derives from Aramaic. It is also because we know from archeology that Yavne Yam was there at the time.
Yavne Yam means the port of Yavne (Jamnia). But Yavne did not exist in the 14th century. However, we have both ground and underwater surveys that show a large fortified sea port at the site of Yavne Yam in the middle and late Bronze Age. It would be odd if this important site was never mentioned in the Amarna letters.
Idrimi took his habiru mercenaries by boat to attack Alalakh. Homer’s stories show warriors often transported by sea. The Sea Peoples are the best example of this kind of amphibious warfare. So, if we ask where the habiru causing trouble in south Canaan during the Amarna period came from, a good answer might be that they came from Lebanon by sea.