The appalling terrorist attacks on men, women and children in southern Israel a week last Saturday, followed by the unfolding humanitarian crisis and the killing of men, women and children in northern Gaza almost defy words, writes columnist Andy Winter.

But there are words. Terrorism is just one, a word that the BBC shamefully refuses to use when describing the attacks and murders on October 7. The Israeli military have now been ordered by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to flatten Gaza City, at a terrible human cost. And so the terrible cycle continues: violence upon violence, killings upon killings.

The trauma and grief of those affected by the killings and the loss of loved ones, Israeli and Palestinian alike, is heartbreaking. A dead child is a dead child whether they are Israeli or Palestinian. The grief and trauma of mourning family members should unite both Israeli and Palestinian.

I witnessed first hand such trauma back in 1978 when living in Grahamstown in South Africa. Among others with who I shared accommodation was a young white man from what was then called Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. He was studying at the local university. His entire family had been killed in an ambush in the so-called bush war. During university holidays he would return home to do a tour with the Rhodesian army.

Each evening he would come into our lounge to watch the television news from the apartheid-controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation. A standard item was always the situation in Rhodesia. There would be reference to the number of “terrorists” killed that day. He would invariably say, with a face hardened by loss: “Not enough of the bastards.”

He and I had opposing views on the liberation struggle in his homeland. In this case, one person’s terrorist was another person’s freedom fighter. Yet both sides in that conflict, as in every conflict, committed atrocities. Nevertheless, I rejoiced when black-majority rule was achieved in what became Zimbabwe. And now I grieve as much for how corruption has destroyed that country along with the hopes and aspirations of its people. So, too, in the country of my birth, South Africa, where once again a noble liberation struggle, led by one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela, brought about majority rule before corruption and incompetence destroyed the people’s hopes and aspirations.

Margaret Thatcher is reported to have referred to Mandela as “that grubby little terrorist”. Yes, he led the armed struggle which was responsible for acts of terrorism that led to civilian deaths but today he is seen, quite rightly, as a freedom fighter and a great liberator. He won the Nobel Peace Prize alongside his apartheid-era opponent, FW de Klerk.

Similarly in Northern Ireland, there were terrorists and there were those opposing them, depending on one’s outlook, and there were occupiers and the occupied. The cycle of sectarian killings seemed unstoppable. The government banned the sound of the voices of those representing Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA.

I was heavily criticised, along with three other Labour councillors, when we invited Gerry Adams to visit Brighton following The Grand hotel bombing. Such was the hypocrisy of the time that while we were in the eye of a storm, Julian Amery, then Conservative MP for Brighton Pavilion, met the leaders of the IRA for talks and received no criticism at all.

But can the ceaseless cycle of killings in Israel and Palestine come to an end? Who had foreseen the end of the bush war in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, the peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa or the end to the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland? But they happened. The outcomes may not be the Utopia we had hoped to see. Compromise on all sides was required. And yes, peace settlements are often fragile and flawed but the cycle of killings has largely ended.

It is in the interests of ordinary people of Israel and Palestine that some form of peace settlement must be negotiated. What I wonder is: who are the leaders who are big enough to come to the negotiating table? Leaders on all sides, or internationally, are certainly showing few signs of wanting to stop the violence. I’m not suggesting an equivalence of blame and culpability for recent atrocities and events but if the starting point is apportioning blame and culpability for the overall conflict, the chances of peace will be as far away as ever.

Whatever happens, as with my former Rhodesian housemate, the grief, trauma, bitterness and anger of ordinary people will remain as real as ever.

Andy Winter is a former councillor who worked in social care and homelessness services for 40 years